How to Recover from a DNF: Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster

By Michele Dillon, Choose Mountains Ambassador

About a month ago, I wrote a blog for Choose Mountains about the process of training for my first race over 50 miles (you can read that here). I never thought it was going to be easy, I actually picked it because it wouldn’t be. It was an extreme challenge for me to choose this race {Georgia Death Race} as my first attempt at the 100k distance. I was absolutely going for it though and I had every belief in myself that I could do it with the hard work and training that I had put in.

Well, if the title didn't already spoil it for you, I Did Not Finish (DNF). Of the 72 miles and 14,000 feet of vertical gain, I climbed 12,000 feet and ran 45 miles before just narrowly missing the cutoff to continue. 7,000k of that gain was in the first 21 miles. It was the hardest thing I had ever done and I didn't get the chance to finish it. Naturally, I was pretty devastated to see my dream fall apart right in front of me.

It has since been a little over 2 weeks since the race and I've had a lot of time to absorb all of my thoughts. For those of you that have ever dealt or will ever deal with the after effects of a DNF, I wanted to share my words of wisdom from those days of reflection.

 Taking a Fireball shot at the 45 mile cutoff point. Races in the South entail alcohol being offered to you at every aid station. It was much needed at this point. Image by: Chris Kumm (@iliketrails)

Taking a Fireball shot at the 45 mile cutoff point. Races in the South entail alcohol being offered to you at every aid station. It was much needed at this point. Image by: Chris Kumm (@iliketrails)

Wear Sweatpants

For the most part, this had a lot to do with just pure comfort. My sweatpants were the most comfortable thing for me to have on my body after the race. Then after 4 straight days of wearing them, I turned into a bit of a running joke on my Instagram stories; "taking my sweatpants to the movies", "taking my sweatpants to lunch". It morphed into something that was cheering me up because it was so ridiculous how many days I had been wearing them and had absolutely no shame about wearing them in public (and it had the added bonus of making everyone laugh). You obviously don't have to wear sweatpants specifically, but find the thing that makes you feel comfortable and don't be ashamed about wearing them forever…or in my case, until you have to go back to work.

 Rocking my 4 day sweatpants and $10 Walgreens sandals on a hike post race

Rocking my 4 day sweatpants and $10 Walgreens sandals on a hike post race

Talk About It

The last thing you're going to want to do is relive the experience and talk about how you "failed". But this is the singular thing that you can do in order to make peace with the situation and even though you may not think so at the time, ultimately feel better. The people that love and support you are always going to be proud of you when you've gone out there and tried your best. What I also found was that it allowed me to view my DNF and my feelings of failure in a different light. Initially my thoughts were, I still had 27 miles to go! Even though I was close, I was nowhere near close to finishing! However, after seeing people's responses, they were just impressed and proud of me for getting as far as I did. Those 45 miles were something that a lot of them couldn't even fathom doing. They were the hardest part of the race and to them it was amazing what I had accomplished. It allowed my perspective to shift and it felt good to know that no one was disappointed in me; although I am not sure as to why I was so worried about that in the first place!

Be Proud of Your Effort

…but allow yourself to feel the pain of disappointment. You are permitted to simultaneously be happy for going out there and giving it your all and also feel the emotions that come along with not achieving your expected outcome. This is human.

In the attempt of trying to make you feel better, or simply not knowing what to say, you will hear a lot of "don't be sad" or "it's not a big deal". Appreciate the fact that it's coming from a good place, but only you can decide how you feel about your DNF. Very likely those feelings will change on a daily basis and that's OK! Allow yourself to feel each emotion as they come and don't be so hard on yourself for feeling them.

Don't Let It Stop You

You may initially think that because you didn't achieve this goal, that means that you dreamt too big and it's out of your reach. Don't. If something is important to you and you work hard for it, it can only be temporarily unattainable. Eventually you will get there. Keep dreaming big. Keep challenging yourself. Keep digging deep to find your limits and then don't let them stop you.

 Don't give up, don't give up, don't give up, no no no. Image by: We Run Huntsville

Don't give up, don't give up, don't give up, no no no. Image by: We Run Huntsville

Fuel Your Fire

Think really hard about why this specific goal was important to you and whether it still is. Challenge your perspective. Don't think simply just because you didn't finish, that means you have to go back to prove yourself. You don't need to prove yourself to anyone. There has to be a deeper reason and desire or it will very likely continue to be an unattainable goal. Find the deeper meaning. Find your fire and FUEL IT.

This Doesn’t Define You

This doesn't define you as a runner and it doesn’t define your abilities as a runner. Finish lines are never the definition of who you are. Your goals, your dreams and your passions are. Every time you put yourself on the line and try something, especially something that is not certain, you are defining who you are. You are strong, you are resilient and you will not be broken.

Allow Yourself to Move On

Don't put a time limit on your post DNF feelings, but do be aware that there will eventually be a time they need to dissipate. It's incredibly strong to let yourself be vulnerable and not ignore your emotions, but it's even stronger to realize when it's time to let them go and move on.

 


CONTRIBUTOR:

AMBASSADOR MICHELE DILLON

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Follow her adventures on Instagram or Facebook

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Clare Gallagher: Igniting the Fire

By Michele Dillon

 Picture Credit: Thomas Woodson

Picture Credit: Thomas Woodson

Clare Gallagher is an elite mountain trail runner who has been quickly making her name across the country with her amazing performances at super competitive races. She first broke into the scene by winning Leadville in 2016 as her very first 100 miler. She finished with the second fastest time for a woman in the history of the race. Another notable and more recent win for Clare was at the CCC 100k where she set the course record and became the first American woman to win, in a race that had 258 finishing women. Instead of just riding the wave of notoriety and going to interview after interview talking solely about herself and her racing, Clare has decided to use her voice to educate her fellow adventure lovers with topics that she is extremely passionate about with the hopes of igniting that fire within the rest of us. Foremost on her mind is climate change and it's not so distant effects on our future, people, animals and lands. Secondly, is protecting the public lands that we get to freely explore now but may not always have that opportunity. With choosing to be outspoken and spreading her knowledge, she encourages us all to start listening, educating ourselves, paying attention to our impact on this world and fighting to protect the things that we love. Clare was awesome enough to let me virtually sit down with her so that we could all better understand the importance behind these issues and hopefully motivate others to get started toward making their voice and actions matter.

Most people know you as Clare Gallagher, the elite trail runner. However, you are getting more and more well know known for your advocacy for protecting our lands and climate. Could you explain why you think it's so important to use your voice in your position as an athlete?

Running is not inherently altruistic. Most of us run to make ourselves feel good. Not to mention, in ultras, we require other people to forfeit time in their lives so that we can run stupid distances. It's all so weird and time consuming. That's not to say it doesn't have value, but I prefer to associate my running with issues more substantial than just running or a race. I honestly race better when I think of climate change or injustices of the world. I suppose that, too, isn't altruistic if I'm thinking of others' suffering in order to run better. Regardless, I justify my running by making it about more than just me. Who likes a runner who only talks about running? No one. Or at least, I connect with runners who also think that there's more to this weird obsession that putting one leg in front of another. Any trail runner who doesn't support public land protection or climate change mitigation efforts needs to check their privilege. Heck, I need to check my privilege every day. That's why I put myself out there with advocacy work.

Protect Our Winters is one of the many organizations you have a relationship with. How would you explain to a person who is trying to understand climate change and how they can begin to make a difference in this fight, whether big or small?

First and foremost, I think we need to be more aware of who we are voting for (and whether we are voting at all). We need to engage with democracy in order to help mitigate climate change, which is the human-caused warming of our earth, causing mass extinction, human starvation and conflict. It's an insidious crisis that's impacting the world's poorest people at the worst rates. We can begin to make a difference by voting for elected officials committed to policy to help mitigate climate change. It's rather simple. We Google election candidates every election and then vote for the people committed to making this world a better place.

 Picture Credit: Ben Duke

Picture Credit: Ben Duke

Convenient consumption (fast food, single use cups/straws, etc.) is one of the biggest contributors to our world's plastic & garbage problem. You have a big passion for the ocean and coral reefs. Could you give us a closer look into how plastic effects our oceans? What are the steps you take to making your impact less?

I've committed to #stopsucking -- which means I say no to straws, plastic bags, or single use containers whenever I can. This is a great place to start. The "great Pacific trash island" is not an actual island of trash, is an enormous gyre of many (trillions) of microscopic pieces of plastic that have degraded over time. Those tiny pieces of plastic eventually get back to us because fish accidentally eat them and then we eat fish. Do you like eating trash? I sure don't. Not to mention, I don't like inadvertently killing marine animals from my luxurious life of single-use convenience.

You have spoken freely on your personal view of animal consumption and have also mentioned that you believe each and every one of us has to make our own personal choice when it comes to this and shouldn’t judge others for that choice. I fully agree and also feel like the first step to making any kind of change is understanding the reasons behind doing them. Can you tell us the reason why you personally choose to eat less meat and how you feel that impacts the environment?

It's pretty simple: eating veg is a very effective way to reduce one's carbon footprint. This doesn't even touch on the inhumanity of the meat industries across the world. Who needs a burger that badly? For me, I have to fly a lot for my job, but I can easily say no to meat. Boom: my impact is reduced so easily. I also save money and feel less like a jackass American jacked up on feedlot "finished" beef products.

As an athlete who chooses to eat less meat (and also deals with celiac) how do you make sure you stay healthy physically?

It's super easy: I eat a lot of fruits, veggies, rice and corn products. I eat when I'm hungry and don't eat (most of the time) when I'm full. No one needs to reinvent the wheel here. Americans eat way too much protein than we need because of our obsession with meat. We need to calm down and take notes on how other people eat across the world.

Climate change is a huge enough of a fight on its own, but you also have been a voice for protecting our public lands. Why do you feel like this is such an important topic to address and how can we educate ourselves further in order to fully understand the possible impacts?

Public lands are the most personal "issue" trail runners face at a day-to-day level. How would you react if your favorite local trail was closed off because it was sold to a private owner? What if a uranium mine was built there? Bummer, right? Trail runners are so privileged when it comes to access. We rarely are restricted from running on public lands, but the current administration is full-on assaulting what we have, and what the U.S. Dept. of Interior was designed to protect. Personally, climate change is a way more important and grander issue than public lands protection, but I see public lands protection as the gateway for giving a shit about the environment, period. Caring about anything is step one.

Being and staying informed is one of the most overwhelming parts of being an advocate for our climate and our land. What are the outlets you use to keep yourself fully informed and how often do you use them?

NY Times, my friends, I follow news outlets on my social media so when I'm scrolling it's not all pointless. Accounts like UN Climate Council, 350.org, Project Aware, U.S. Dept. of Interior, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Patagonia, and National Geographic. I also follow Colorado's Senators and my Representatives on social media. It makes me feel way more informed and connected to democracy. I love it!

How do you keep a good balance between being an elite athlete and being a voice for the things you are passionate about?

It's a daily challenge. Sometimes I get on a roll reading or writing and put off my run and then never end up getting out. Other times, in weeks of intense focus on a race goal, I'm less informed politically because I'm training so much and tired all the time. That being said, tapering before a race is often my favorite feeling in the world: I'm focused on a race goal and I am fit, but I distract my race nerves by delving into an issue. I can be super productive leading up to races! 

 Picture Credit: Mike Thurk

Picture Credit: Mike Thurk

As someone who is fairly well-known and has the opportunity to speak out on these topics as part of your professional career, what would your advice be for those of us who feel like we may have a less important voice in this fight?

EVERY VOICE MATTERS. I would warn people from thinking that just people someone is more well-known or has a "bigger platform" is more powerful than anyone else. I fully believe that the best trail runner is one who loves the trails hard, and subsequently fights for the trails hard. Professional, novice, world-renowned or completely off-the-grid...WE ARE ALL THE SAME. EVERY VOTE, VOICE AND PAIR OF FEET MATTER! 

Who or what inspired you to finally make that first step into taking a stand on these topics? Any other advice you may have for those that are still trying to figure out exactly how or why to make that first step?

One of my brothers is a Green Beret. The other is a public defender. If I can't stand for protection of the earth, then I'd be a sad contributor to my family's dinnertime conversations. I'd also wonder what the heck I'm doing with my life spending my time dicking around outside only for my own self-fulfillment.

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CONTRIBUTER:

Michele Dillon

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Choose Mountains Ambassador - Colorado 

CONTACT INFO:

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Colorado Choose Mountains Meetup: Greyrock Mountain

By Michele Dillon

Choose Mountains ambassadors Kim Bessler and myself, Michele Dillon held a Colorado Meet Up this past Saturday, December 16th. We took 9 other adventurous souls up to the summit of Greyrock Mountain in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was a beautiful day outside, with light snow dusting on the surrounding landscape and a sun that was playing hide and seek. Two joyous pups joined in our adventure as well and they were the life of the party. By the end of the day, we had hiked 8 miles with 2,600 feet of elevation gain and left with new friends and smiles on our faces. Here is just a glimpse of the fun we had. We really hope that if you couldn't make this one, that you will be brave enough to join us for the next one!

     There is always time for playing while on a hike.

    There is always time for playing while on a hike.

      Burned forests are sad but leave an expansive view of the wilderness around us.

     Burned forests are sad but leave an expansive view of the wilderness around us.

 These very energetic pups probably did twice the amount of miles as we did, as they were running up and down the mountain telling us to hurry our little tushes up!

These very energetic pups probably did twice the amount of miles as we did, as they were running up and down the mountain telling us to hurry our little tushes up!

 We all took our turn dancing with the pups, picking up the pups, kissing the pups and hoping the pups would never leave us.

We all took our turn dancing with the pups, picking up the pups, kissing the pups and hoping the pups would never leave us.

 Ok we admit...we were a little obsessed with the dogs...but just look at them!

Ok we admit...we were a little obsessed with the dogs...but just look at them!

 Hiking up to the summit. The rocks had a very Land Before Time feel. The view from the top was spectacular.

Hiking up to the summit. The rocks had a very Land Before Time feel. The view from the top was spectacular.

 The summits first arrivals always get the coolest photos. Photo by Genna  Nault.

The summits first arrivals always get the coolest photos. Photo by Genna  Nault.

 This frozen lake was right below the summit. It was gorgeous to look down on from above. Photo by Michele

This frozen lake was right below the summit. It was gorgeous to look down on from above. Photo by Michele

 The boys won the summit photo of the day...don't even try to argue.

The boys won the summit photo of the day...don't even try to argue.

 Your fearless leaders Michele and Kim. Pretty much the dream team of Choose Mountains Meet Ups. Everyone summit danced. You could have summit danced with us.

Your fearless leaders Michele and Kim. Pretty much the dream team of Choose Mountains Meet Ups. Everyone summit danced. You could have summit danced with us.

 We all wore the most amazing colors for a group summit photo. Hats off to Zach who set it up and gazelled over the rocks to get in the picture in time. Pretty epic set up for the first try Zach!

We all wore the most amazing colors for a group summit photo. Hats off to Zach who set it up and gazelled over the rocks to get in the picture in time. Pretty epic set up for the first try Zach!

 When hiking back down...always make sure to stop and stare off into the horizon to take in what you accomplished. Photo by Zach.

When hiking back down...always make sure to stop and stare off into the horizon to take in what you accomplished. Photo by Zach.

 The view on the way back down. Have we made you jealous yet? Has the FOMO set in? Come join us next time!! Keep your eyes peeled for the invite! Photo by Michele

The view on the way back down. Have we made you jealous yet? Has the FOMO set in? Come join us next time!! Keep your eyes peeled for the invite! Photo by Michele

The Women of Choose Mountains

By Michele Dillon, Choose Mountains Ambassador

There is a conversation that has been going around recently about the inequality in the sport of ultra running. While I do agree that every podium winner, no matter the gender, should get equal recognition for their hard earned place; I also believe there is a matter that is getting ignored in regards to this topic. Which is that, women and men are completely different athletes. I'm not saying men are better than women or vice versa. I'm saying that that they are just downright different. Men have their own strengths and weaknesses and the same goes for women. I believe that as a women, to try and compare ourselves to a male athlete is selling ourselves short. Equality in the sport should not mean that we are all seen as equal competitors because we aren't; and I think that is something to be celebrated. Women can be amazingly strong, determined and unwavering athletes. We need to step up and own our gender and what we can and can't bring to the sport; equating ourselves to a completely different functioning and performing body doesn't do that. The conversation is good, it brings attention to what is needed, but it has also lost focus and veered a little more toward negative and blaming sentiments. The beginning of the solution is to recognize the problem, which has been done. In order to move forward in a better direction, we need to keep the focus on empowering women into realizing that we are our own inciting force. We are in charge of what we put into our training, our performance and our attitude. Accept that if we want something, we need to ask for it. If we believe in something, we need to stand up for it. Most importantly, we need to support each and every bad ass woman that surrounds us because in the end, success in a sport isn't about the recognition. It's about the sense of accomplishment of having put all of yourself out there and having the real and tangible encouragement of those that are in your life. The competition is best kept for the day of the event and ignored all other times in life. We should not be our friend's opponents, we should be their inspirations and cheerleaders.

I spoke with the women ambassadors of Choose Mountains that are out there crushing life on the trails, in the mountains and anywhere they can get their hands on and discussed their take on this and some other insightful topics.

First off, what is your sport of choice and how long have you been doing it? Why do you love it so much?

Tiare: It's weird when I see the word "sport" in this question because I feel like I don't do any actual "sports". My activity of choice is running. When possible - trail running. I ran in middle school and high school to clear my mind. When I got sober in 2013 running came back with a strong force because it was the only thing that kept me sane. I felt so much happiness.....so even to this day, running makes everything better. Gets yourself from point A to point B faster and helps me stay leveled.

Sawna: My main sport would be mountain running these last 5 years with a mix of climbing and cycling in between. Really anything to do with being in the mountains. I love it because it's a place where you are not judged and are given opportunity to witness your strength. It's constant, being surrounded by so much beauty and its creations while it feels like life's watch has stopped momentarily. I can be my true authentic self when I'm running, hiking or just being in the mountains and that make my heart undeniably happy.

 This is Sawna at her most recent race: Fat Dog 120, that's right 120 means 120 miles!

This is Sawna at her most recent race: Fat Dog 120, that's right 120 means 120 miles!

Danielle: Well, that is a bit of tricky question for me, I don't really have one sport of choice per-say, but rather a slew of sports that I enjoy. I guess my journey as a real athlete started with marathon running back in 2009, to which hot yoga was quickly added in for cross training. I suffered a DVT (blood clot) of my right leg, a debilitating injury in July of 2011 that put a stop to my active lifestyle as I knew it.

About 5 years after my injury, I reclaimed my love for the outdoors and hiking, even though it was pretty difficult given my deficits from my DVT, but I pushed onward anyway. I started trying to hike once a week, every week, for the entire year of 2016. Although I didn't reach my goal, I ended up struggling with anxiety and depression for the better part of 2016. I did however, spend countless hours out on the trails and saw some pretty amazing places and spaces. I found a new love for the mountains, unlike anything I had felt before. Now I love hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, SUP, yoga, and the list goes on.... pretty much anything active and outside.

Mackenzie: I wouldn't consider myself an athlete with a specific sport, more of a casual outdoor enthusiast, right now my favorite outdoor activities are hiking and skiing, I've been skiing as long as I could walk, I'm not an expert by any means but I love getting out on the mountain, I always joke that if you live in Maine you have to find some type of activity that you love to do in the winter or your will go crazy!  I've recently gotten more into snowshoeing and cross country skiing as well!

My main love lately though has been hiking, mostly in the White Mountains of NH.  I started hiking here and there in Maine in college about 10 years ago, but after college turned it into an annual girl hike event with my old college roommate.  After living outside Portland, ME for a while a friend invited me to go hiking in the White Mountains with her and I was hooked!

As I got more into it I started encouraging several of my girlfriends to go with me and started a little group on Facebook called "#girlhikes" to coordinate weekend day trips.  I love that it gave me a chance to spend some quality time with my friends while doing something active.

While I've been hiking for years now I still am in awe every time I hike a big peak, I'm always amazed at how far and how high my body can carry me.  Every hike ends with a feeling of accomplishment and a calm from spending quality time in nature.  I find it even more important to make time to get to the mountains now that my weeks get so busy; filled with work, time on my phone and computer. It's so refreshing to disconnect from all of that and relax in the outdoors.  

I have also been lucky enough to meet someone that shares my passion for the outdoors and love to get out hiking with my fiancé Dan and our pup Fallon.  Our pup just turned 2 this summer and we are starting to do longer trips and some overnights which just adds to the adventure!

Ellie: Ultra running! I've been in this sport for almost two years, and it's definitely a way of life. It's amazing to have a little bit of suffering in your life.

 Typical photo of Ellie crushing mountains with an atypical adventure hat

Typical photo of Ellie crushing mountains with an atypical adventure hat

Kim: My sport of choice is mountain climbing. Ultra distance trail running goes hand and hand with this. In addition, I dabble in rock climbing. So, ultraneering? I have been involved in outdoor sports for 4 years now.

Michele: The main sport that I always choose to do, even when I'm not in the mood for anything else, is trail running. This summer I dove deep into climbing the amazing mountains that Colorado has to offer and it lit a fire under me that hasn't been ignited since discovering trails. I would say that these two things are what gets me going the most, although I do also love to rock climb and mountain bike.

Do you feel like you have enough supportive women in your life? If yes, how do you keep the relationships strong and encouraging? If not, how has this impacted your attitude toward your chosen sport?

Tiare: You know as I get older I notice the women in my life ebb and flow. I have many wonderful girlfriends yet not a lot of stable, consistent ones that I can count on. I am used to this and I don't have a lot of thoughts about it other than I accept the fact that people move around. People's interests change....it used to be tough because my main hiking partners moved out of this state and I gained new ones but sometimes it's not always that strong connection I was used to. The mountains are wonderful to me no matter what and the situation is and having really strong girlfriends who aren't physically in my state anymore has helped me learn a healthy way to look at non attachment.

 Tiare chose this as the photo that inspires her "Ellie!" I am completely inspired by this human I haven't met in real life because she runs 100 mile races in Hawaiian shirts always smiling and laughing. If more people lived like her and just stopped over thinking their life they'd be more happy!"

Tiare chose this as the photo that inspires her "Ellie!" I am completely inspired by this human I haven't met in real life because she runs 100 mile races in Hawaiian shirts always smiling and laughing. If more people lived like her and just stopped over thinking their life they'd be more happy!"

Sawna: It's hard to describe the women in my life. Although hell yes! I have strong supportive women in my life, I do have those that, although, are supportive in many ways- may not agree with my particular lifestyle or the amount of time that I put into my particular sport. I've met so many incredible women on trails, in my hometown and traveling around the world that I immediately connected with. These women have been the most kind hearted, most gracious and loving people I've bonded with these last few years and I am shocked sometimes and the endless amount of support they've offered since. My heart knows what makes it happy, to be in the mountains and have my feet take me to these incredible places- but to have such strong, supportive women encouraging my passion, it just makes the stoke so much higher.

Danielle: Yes, I feel like I have a multitude of supportive women in my life. Actually more so then men. I try to build my friendships around healthy activities so that we can learn and struggle and grow together. It makes for better bonds.

 Danielle on a recent Choose Mountains meetup in the PNW

Danielle on a recent Choose Mountains meetup in
the PNW

Mackenzie: I am so thankful to say I do! Like I said previously I've found hiking and camping with other ladies has always been the perfect way to spend some quality time together and catch up, talk about life and the important things and just enjoy ourselves!  

I've also joined several online women specific communities both local and global, including Choose Mountains Women and the NH Women's Hiking Group (nicknamed the purple army for the purple bandannas ladies carry to identify others on the trail).  I find these groups both encouraging and inspiring! They have been an amazing way to meet other like minded ladies and also a safe space to ask questions without feeling judged.

Ellie: I definitely feel like I have a solid crew of lady crushers in my life. I think, especially in ultra-running, that it's really easy to maintain good relationships with others. It's such a self-challenging sport, that it's pretty easy to keep the competition low-key and friendly!

Kim: I have some incredibly amazing and supportive women in my life. While I don't have a ton of friends, the women who I consider to be closest to me are inspiring (each in their own unique way) and encouraging of my hopes, dreams, and aspirations in and outside of sports. I feel very lucky to have these three women in my life. It is not hard to keep the relationships strong and encouraging. It is quite simple, I do not compare myself to any of these women and I want to see them all succeed in their intended goals. While we are all runners, climbers, and mountaineers, we have a different approach to similar (while being very different) goals. I think the best way to keep friendships strong is to keep comparisons at a minimum. This can be difficult but I like to feed off my friend's energy rather than envy it.

Michele: Yes! I try to make sure to surround myself with only supportive people in general because I want to equally feel happiness in each other's successes. The only person I am competitive with is myself, seeing how I can improve, beat my times, get stronger, etc. It's not the only thing that drives me though. Even if I am having a rough day out there, I always finish what I start because in the end that is what is most important to me. I try to make sure that is the attitude that the people I hang out with also have and if I feel it appearing to me as anything else, then I will take a step back and focus on the relationships that have healthier mindsets. Sometimes that is easier said than done though.

There's a conversation out there about the inequality in the sport of ultra running and how it's affected podium recognition, prize money and even actual entry into races. Whether or not you are an ultra-runner, can you speak to any personal experiences you have had with being viewed as unequal in your chosen sport?  How have you handled dealing/responding to that?

Sawna: I haven't thought about this too much but it seems as though the talk about gender inequality, although it's been around for- well forever, these days the talk has become louder. With as many incredible women athlete out there I'm pretty shocked that I haven't seen many as vocal as I would think to see. I think women are undervalued in this sport and really this sport is so incredibly underpaid as it is compared to say... track. I support this conversation and hope that it leads to a more positive approach leading away from inequality.

Mackenzie: When I first started hiking I definitely heard comments like "Oh it's just you two girls going camping? No guys? Are you sure you will be OK?" insert eye roll here.  And granted it was a college boyfriend that originally got me into hiking, but after we broke up, one of my college roommates and I started heading out for our own girl hikes and camping weekends.  We definitely weren't experienced when we started but we were smart about it and our confidence grew the more we went.

 Mackenzie with her group of girlfriends

Mackenzie with her group of girlfriends

On one occasion we were setting out to hike Katahdin for maybe our 3rd time and were appropriately dressed, had all our gear in our packs and were about to head out when a ranger stopped us to quiz us on our gear to make sure we had everything we might need. I appreciate his concern, but as he was asking us a couple guys were heading to the same trail head obviously unprepared in jeans and only had a water bottle but no one stopped to question them. We were just like oh come on? Just because we are girls doesn't mean we are less prepared or less capable!  It's funny observing situations like that, but while annoying it hasn't been discouraging, in fact it's just made me more motivated to keep up the girl hiking tradition!

Kim: Several times I have experienced men challenging my sense of direction in the mountains and it has ultimately led to unfavorable circumstances. I have solo navigated quite a few off trail mountains deep in the backcountry of 14 different states and Alberta, Canada. I have taught myself the crucial skill of orienteering (although I still want to take an official class) and feel I have a good sense of direction and movement through the mountains. These men have joked, "You're a woman, and you don't have a good sense of direction." These are men I have gone out with in group hikes or randoms. I don't normally climb mountains with people I don't know but on the few occasions I have, this has been my experience. My male friends have NEVER treated me this way, they respect my abilities and often look at me for safe navigation.

In addition, I have noticed a few times in ultra-distance trail races, men get upset when I pass them and try to speed up and show me they can go faster (happens out in the mountains sometimes too). Ellie and I have a term for it, we call them "try hards." They are going to try real hard not to let a woman pass them.

The one thing I have noticed during award ceremonies is they always do the female awards first. And save the male awards as the grand finale. I do not understand this. Why are the male awards more important? I would love to see this change, I think it would be a huge step.

What are your thoughts on viewing other women in your life as competitors? Have you ever participated in competition with a friend?  If so, what was the takeaway from the experience, whether it be good or bad?

Tiare: First off - I absolutely hate competition. That's why I never took for team sports, all the things I've ever stayed interested in are mainly independent. It makes me super uncomfortable to compete with other women whether it's in a sport or in everyday life. I see it in people around me and I find myself distancing from people who do that. When I notice it within myself - I distance myself. I focus a lot on having healthy boundaries because I believe there is enough space in this world for everyone to shine their own light.

Sawna: I'd like to say I'm not competitive- but I'd be lying. I'm competitive with everyone, female and male, but mostly with myself. When I'm racing, yes, I see other women has competitors but it always a friendly competition and it's always about experiencing a shared passion together no matter what the outcome would be.

Mackenzie: I wouldn't consider my hiking a competitive sport but some friends and I are working on hiking all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers and sometimes it feels like a bit of a race and competition comparing who has finished more.  

But while I am looking forward to finishing my 48 peaks I try to remind myself that I'm working on the list to explore more of the whites, not just to check peaks off before someone else.

 Mackenzie chose this as the photo that makes her feel strong and beautiful

Mackenzie chose this as the photo that makes her feel strong and beautiful

Ellie: Like I said before, the ultra-community is so friendly, and understanding. It's always anyone's race, since it's over such a long distance. A little competition is healthy, but I try to not get worked up about it!

Kim: I work very hard not to compare myself to other women or view other women as competitors. Women should support other women. Even in engineering school a male dominated academic field, I support the women I go to school with. I have been in running races with my female friends but I did not feel competition, I wanted them to do great. We are all different ages and we all have a different level of experience. I respect my own journey and I am proud of my accomplishments and my friend's accomplishments. There was one time that a woman I was once good friends with was running the same ultra as me. She once spent a good portion of a long hike making fun of running, describing in detail why it was so "stupid." She kind of personally attacked something I love doing for many different reasons and then all of a sudden decided to start running ultras. While I was excited for her, I wanted to beat her. I spent the entire race focusing on beating her, which I did. It was a terrible icky feeling to have that be my motivator for 8 hours. I swore I would never let something so childish drive me again, and it hasn't. She has run several more ultras and I am so happy she now understands the joy that can be found in a good suffer fest.

Michele: Competition is not something I participate in with others. Even in ultras, I try very hard to just run my own race and not think about anyone else. I understand that with elite athletes, they are competing for money and ultimately sponsorships (and it can also sometimes be their job), so competition in that way makes sense to me. Any other type of competition, especially between friends, seems childish and immature. Anyone that cares that much about what someone else can do, rather than what they personally accomplish, is going to be stuck in a very disappointing status quo of their own making.

 Michele chooses this photo as the one that makes her feel strong and beautiful. "This picture was taken when I was deep in a bonk after coming down from my first 13er mountain last summer. It reminds me that no matter how crappy I feel, I always push through the pain and finish."

Michele chooses this photo as the one that makes her feel strong and beautiful. "This picture was taken when I was deep in a bonk after coming down from my first 13er mountain last summer. It reminds me that no matter how crappy I feel, I always push through the pain and finish."

What are the most important things that you have learned throughout doing your sport that you would have liked someone to give you advice on, whether it be woman specific or otherwise?

Tiare: For mountaineering - "It doesn't matter how fast you go, just put one step in front of the other."

Mackenzie: Don't be afraid to just get out there, especially with something like hiking, there are trails for everyone, you can start with just a short flat walk in the woods and build up from there!

You don't need fancy gear you just need some reliable basics! It also helps to go out with a friend or someone that does have more experience to lead the way in the beginning, so grab a friend or join a group to make new hiking friends!

Kim: I think the biggest thing about climbing mountains as a woman is climbing solo. While a lot of the stigma of women doing things alone has been dropped, thanks to the many women who came before us fighting for the rights we have today, there is still a stigma. Climbing mountains alone as a woman is no different than climbing mountains alone as a man.

The same dangers apply. It is unlikely you will be attacked by a male predator 10 miles deep into a back country bushwhack. Solo climbing is an empowering and enlightening experience and women are just as capable as men.

 Kim chose this as the photo that most inspires her

Kim chose this as the photo that most inspires her

Michele: I think the most important thing is to just focus on yourself and what you're currently able to do and know that with time, you will get stronger and better. It's easy to get caught up in what others already have experience in and wish that you could already do those things too. But once you just forget about all that silliness, it's so much more fun and relaxing to just do your own thing. Personally I've found that I ended up discovering I was capable of so much more than I thought I ever could be, once I dropped the notion that it mattered what anyone else thought I could do.

Do you have a topic that is important to you that you would like to bring attention to? This doesn't have to be related to your sport, enlighten us who may not be aware of certain topics what we should be keeping our eyes and ears open to.

Mackenzie: One cause I fundraise for every year is the Maine Adaptive Sports and Recreation program, it gives people with physical disabilities the tools they need to get out and enjoy the outdoors.  I love that this program helps more people get outdoors when they otherwise would be restricted by their disabilities and I am happy to support the program through their annual ski-a-thon fundraising event.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your chosen sport and what makes you so proud of it?

Tiare: Climbing Mount Baker and Mount Rainier. I did something that at one point in my life never believed was possible and being up there feels like such an accomplishment from the kind of life I used to live.

 Tiare chose this as the photo that makes her feel strong and beautiful. "I climbed to the top of Rainier on a record hot year where the crevasses were out of control and we were the only group to summit on the Emmons side out of our group of 70 that whole summer"

Tiare chose this as the photo that makes her feel strong
and beautiful. "I climbed to the top of Rainier on a record
hot year where the crevasses were out of control and we
were the only group to summit on the Emmons side
out of our group of 70 that whole summer"

Sawna: Recently it would be finishing Fatdog 120. A 120 mile point to point footrace in British Columbia, Canada. My most proudest accomplishment because of my uncertainty and doubt I had about my ability and strength and how I even proved myself wrong. It was a roller coaster of emotion and somehow my body continued to fight when my will was ready to give up. A 33 hour event I will never forget.

Mackenzie: Doing a solo mini road-trip by myself through New England and NY, hiking almost every day and camping out most nights.  I'm proud of going out and doing it on my own, it was the first time I hiked alone and the first time I camped alone, it was one of those times where I finally realized I didn't need a boyfriend or my besties to go out and have an adventure.  

I also am typically a type A planner, and while I had an idea of where I wanted to go and a few stops to visit friends planned along the way I also just let things happen organically too, I drove to a new town or state each day, hiked something and camped out that night, where I would then plan my next stop, it was liberating having that type of freedom to do whatever I want, and empowering to be conquering the peaks on my own.

Ellie: I guess I'm most proud of my last ultra, Ouray 100. But honestly, they're all a bit of a suffer fest, and there's always something to be proud of in finishing (or getting as far as possible)!

Kim: My proudest accomplishment is my latest accomplishment. I ran the Pikes Peak Marathon in 6:19:15 snagged 4th in my age group and 19th overall female in a stacked race with 200 other women. During the marathon I finished the 58 Colorado 14 thousand plus foot mountains on top of Pikes Peak 14,115'. Leading up to this race I had been climbing difficult mountains every single day. I went in exhausted with dead legs. I chose to toe the starting line with a positive attitude and never broke the smile on my face. I effortlessly pushed myself and it was the best race I ever had. Dozens of people came up to afterwards and told me my positive attitude carried them on and that my personality was memorable. It was an incredibly powerful day and a great culmination of the difficult changes I have pushed myself through in the last 4 years.

 Kim chose this as the photo that makes her feel strong and beautiful

Kim chose this as the photo that makes her feel strong
and beautiful

Michele: I could pick a few accomplishments that I have been proud of, but I'm most proud of the fact that I've never put limitations on myself. Once I decide that I want to do something, I don't let anyone else tell me that I can't, and I work my butt off until I accomplish that goal.

Who is your favorite woman athlete and why?

Sawna: My favorite athlete, and really inspiring lady would Alex Borsuk; trail runner, mountaineer, climber, skier. A girl I've been friends on social media for the last year or two that really inspires me to get outside and be more active with my dog. Not only that; but to see a girl my age doing what she is 100% passionate about is inspiring and truly motivating. An authentic human being who is enthusiastic for life- who wouldn't be inspired by that!?

Mackenzie: No specific athletes I follow, but my favorites are my ladies that keep me company on my mountain adventures!

Ellie: I think one of my favorite woman athletes is Anna Frost. I tend to have a greater appreciation for people who move efficiently and smart in the mountains, since I think that's some of the most difficult terrain! I have a tremendous respect for every single person in this sport though...

Kim: I have 3 favorite women athletes and they are not elite or famous, they represent every day women who crush.

1) Allison Snyder - Allison used to run collegiate track but an eating disorder and injuries led to an incomplete career. She turned to the mountains and running ultra-marathons. I have climbed dozens of mountains with Allison and she is not only capable but a beautiful climber. Allison moved into her car and spent 1 full year solo road tripping (running and climbing) all over the country. She is the strongest female presence I have in my life and is encouraging and supportive of my goals.

2) Michele Dillon - Michele will try anything, literally anything with zero fear of failure. This is what initially drew me to her and this is what keeps me hooked in the friendship. I am in awe of her ability to respect her mind and body while pushing far past her limits. She is a great runner and is becoming one hell of a little mountain climber. Oh, and she is the nicest person on the face of the planet, so there is that.

3) Ellie Hacker - I have spent more time with Ellie over the past 8 months than I have spent with any other single person in the last 4 years. She is stubborn and her stubbornness and inability to quit has led this young lady to some seriously impressive finish lines (the Ouray 100 with 42,000 feet of vertical gain!). Ellie is an all-around tremendous athlete who has a seemingly endless well of energy. She is an absolute blast to climb mountains with. If we are being honest a couple of bad climbs with some random men made me appreciate having a female best friend who is so capable of moving safely and efficiently through the mountains. I expect Ellie to do tremendous things in her life and you can bet I'll be there to support every single one of them.

Michele: Anyone who knows me, knows that my answer is most definitely Clare Gallagher...and there are so many reasons why she is my favorite female ultra runner. She has a radiating positive and passionate attitude and uses it to not only lift other people up but also to spread the word on important worldwide topics. She is very intelligent and also extremely talented but also doesn't rely on those two things to just get her through life. She works hard for everything she accomplishes and I take a lot of inspiration and encouragement from the way she lives life and crushes trails.

      Michele chooses this picture as the one that inspires her. Clare Gallagher after finishing and winning the CCC 100k in Chamonix, France. The mud, the strength, and the smile on her face that you can't see but just know is there.

     Michele chooses this picture as the one that inspires her. Clare Gallagher after finishing and winning the CCC 100k in Chamonix, France. The mud, the strength, and the smile on her face that you can't see but just know is there.

Who is your favorite male athlete and why?  

Sawna: Again, this is a difficult one. This last year I've been quite obsessed over Adam Campbell and his recovery and comeback. He's an overall extraordinary mountain lover, runner, climber, skier- you name it. Learning about him breaking his pelvis and spine last year during a climbing was devastating! However, through social media, watching his recovery and strength to get back to the mountains and his passions was such an incredible thing. I stood in Silverton, Colorado as he finished Hardrock 100, the most difficult one hundred mile footrace when not even a year ago he was unable to walk. It was inspiring and gutsy to say the least. I could name of tons of Male Athletes that are my "favorite" for any particular reason. But Adam, his passion for the mountains shines through him and is incredibly contagious.

Ellie: This is a hard one. But... I mean. Killian. Because Killian.

Kim: My favorite male athlete right now is Mike Wardian solely because he is kind, humble and an all-around well balanced runner/mountain athlete

Michele: Before Hardrock this year, I would have been on the fence about this question, but after witnessing Kilian Jornet run through the Ouray aid station (mile 60) with his arm in a makeshift sling from his own hydration pack after having dislocated his shoulder, and popped it back in himself some 40 miles prior...then going on to WIN the race with the most amazing attitude and style, it's no contest. On top of all that, he does everything with an extremely infectious smile on his face and you can just tell that he just absolutely loves what he is doing.

"Care Free" - Ambassador Stuke Sowle

Winter continues to pile on the snow in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Our ambassador Stuke has taken to the lower mountains of the area to continue to improve his physical and mental conditioning for the larger adventures he has planned this summer. He takes us along on one of his most recent outings on Tiger Mountain on our blog.

You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;

I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
— - Li Bai

 

I had originally intended to write about my newest method of transportation in the outdoors, cross country skiing, but when a trail runner I follow on Facebook and Instagram posted this quote, I knew that I had to veer off my planned course to write about the mountains in my backyard that I love so dearly.  

 

Just miles from the Seattle metro area lies an area called the “Issaquah Alps”.  The name was created by a local legend, Harvey Manning to describe the foothills surrounding the town of Issaquah that consist of Cougar, Squak and Tiger Mountains.  Now those of us who spend time on these hills know the name is a bit outrageous but obviously it stuck.  The mountains are rich in both natural and human history and in doing a bit of investigating for this piece I found myself quickly going down the research rabbit hole.  Fortunately I was able to recover quickly and promised myself that later on I would give this area a proper history.

This winter in the Pacific Northwest has been a boon for alpine and backcountry skiers.  It feels as though the snow hasn’t stopped falling since late November and it continues to pile up at the higher elevations as I write this.  It also has been a winter full of high avalanche risk that has kept me for the most part under the treeline.  I have seen a lot of frustration among fellow outdoor enthusiasts lamenting the inability to get to the places they love so dearly because of the onslaught of the white stuff.  As for me, well I just turn what is available. The Issaquah Alps.

 

After a couple of days spent on cross country skiing on the east side of the Cascades in the Methow Valley, I returned home to the warmer and wetter west side of the state.  The skiing had given my legs a bit of a rest in comparison to my usual regimen in the mountains.  I had one more day off before returning to work so I decided to head to Tiger Mountain and use those trails to focus on some gain.  I made the quick drive to Issaquah and parked at the Issaquah Trail center.  This small park contains a statue of Harvey Manning as well as some relics of the bygone logging era of the mountain.  Once packed up, I headed towards the mountain with no specific route planned.

 

Crisscrossed with over a hundred trails that total hundreds of miles, the Issaquah Alps are a paradise for those struck with wanderlust.  The flanks of the mountains are covered with a lush green forest that is gradually erasing all the damage done by humans in the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s.  Logging and mining stripped these mountains bare before conservationists intervened and convinced the powers that be to protect mountains.  Ten minutes out of the city, I was entering the forest at the bottom of Tiger Mountain, in another five minutes, most signs of civilization were gone.  My chosen meandering route up to the summit of West Tiger I was already warming up my legs.
 

The forest surrounding the trail was an explosion of green.  I so often hear from people who are visiting the state for the first time just how green it is here.  A byproduct of all that rain we are so famous for.  The trail is wide and gradual in comparison to what I am used to.  It is one of the busier trails on Tiger Mountain, but I found it to be empty on this cool morning.  I enjoyed the solitude and fell into a steady even walking pace.  About an hour into the climb, the mist was burned off by the Sun. Small splashes of sunlight danced around me as I passed one of my favorite characters in this area, a stump that so closely resembles a face. I give it a morning greeting as I pass by.

 

The climb steepens as I near the summit of West Tiger I. I ascend a trail that for whatever reason I rarely climb, Poo Top.  I realize as make my way up the trail that I am in the spot that almost three years ago to the day I came across a trail runner while I was hiking.  Burdened with a heavy pack, I was huffing way up the trail and looking up spotted the man gliding effortlessly down the trail.  As I moved to the side, he stopped and we talked for a few minutes.  He was such a friendly, engaging individual and I was taken with how physically fit he appeared for his age.  As I watched him resume running down the trail I knew that I had to give trail running a try.  I paused at this spot and smiled at the memory.  Grateful for the fortune of him and I crossing paths that day.

 

Soon I found myself on the summit of West Tiger I. With an elevation of just under 3,000’ it doesn’t seem like much, but when you start below 200’, it adds up.  I took stock of how strong I felt and decided to go forward with making it a day of climbing and descending the West Tigers.  I quickly traversed the summits of West Tiger’s II and III which are little more than highpoints on a ridge, then jogged my way down the very popular West Tiger 3 trail.  This trail gets crowded on the weekends and as such I generally avoid it but on this morning like earlier, it was relatively empty.  Built on what I’m sure is the remains of an old logging road, the non-technical nature of the trail allows me to really let my eyes wander as I jog down it.  After about three winding miles, I found myself at the base of the mountain once again.  It was time for climb number two of the day.

 The steep Section Line Trail

The steep Section Line Trail


Cable Line. Those two words conjure up a multitude of reactions from local hikers and runners.  Varying from hate to love to a combination of both.  It is not so much a trail as I scar driving it’s way straight up and down the side of West Tiger 3.  2,000’ of climbing (or descending) in approximately 1.5 miles.  It’s steep, technical and I love it dearly.  Last year in the winter and spring months, I climbed the trail 40 times.  I did repeats, threepeats and even a sixpeat to test my mental and physical conditioning.  Cable Line prepped me for the long, steep scrambles that my summer was full of.  On this morning, she was in fine February shape, a mudfest from the start.  

 

My legs kept churning as I made my way up.  I crossed paths with a few hardy souls most of them descending.  As I neared the top of the climb I approached a hiker slowly making his way up. I cleared my throat to let him know I was there.  He turned to look at me and a broad smile flashed across his face.  He exclaimed, “Now there is a smile I really needed to see!”

Being a bit winded the only reply I could manage was a quiet “always”.  

 

Just as I hit the summit of West Tiger III, snow began to fall and by the time I had hit my second summit of West Tiger I it was really coming down.  I grin like a little kid on a snow day, reveling in the change of weather.  I then retrace my steps down the trails I had used to climb the mountain the first time.  This time much quicker as I am aided by gravity.  The miles melt by and once again I find myself at the base of the mountain.  Feeling strong I make a right at a trail junction and begin my third and final climb of the day.  

 

Having climbed 6,000’ already my legs start to feel taxed.  It is a feeling I am familiar with and I appreciate how they have adapted to my demands on them.  Minute-by-minute I climb through the rain, the temperature dropping enough in the altitude to turn the rain drops to snow once again.  My condensed breath is the steam from a locomotive.  My heart pounds in my chest, sweat drips from my nose. My quads burn.  It is at these moments I feel so alive and connected to these mountains.  Like Cable Line, this trail runs straight up the side of the mountain.  Unrelenting.  It is on trails like this that my bigger summer adventures are made possible.  

 

For the third time on this day I stand on the summit of West Tiger III.  I make a final traverse over the other two West Tigers.  With over 9,000’ of climbing in just twenty miles I decide to call it a day and reward myself with a long, winding descent through the lush forest on the northern side of the mountain.  These short steep climbs, followed by long descents remind me of riding a rollercoaster.  The trail and my feet become a blur beneath me and the trunks of the trees lining the trail flash by.  For small stretches of trail, I let gravity completely take over and I a feeling of flying comes over me.  Liberating.  My smile never leaving my face.

I am lost in the moment.  Completely immersed in Nature and the elements.  As it was once pointed out to me,  we are composed of these very elements and instead of shying away from them, we should embrace them.  Find the joy in the rain, wind, and the snow.  Be present and see and feel the beauty of each moment.  So many ask me why I return to these mountains again and again.  Now I know how to answer it simply.


Here, on these green mountains, I am carefree.  


CONTRIBUTER:

Stuke Sowle

Choose Mountains Ambassador: Washington

CONTACT INFO:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mountainsowle/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/stuke.sowle

Email: mountainsowle@gmail.com

75 miles. 36 Hours. Wet Feet in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Nature responds to your respect and gratitude by creating a magical energy of blessings in return.
— - Eileen Anglin

In June of 2015 our Choose Mountains Ambassador Stuke Sowle got his first taste of Section J of the PCT.  He promised himself at the time he would be back to complete the entire 75 mile section.  That promise was fulfilled in November of this year as he made the traverse of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in 36 hours. Here is his story:

IMG_4107.JPG

 

 

Eight weeks removed from the Wonderland and I found myself itching for one more big adventure before winter arrived in the Pacific Northwest.  Truth be told, the air around me seemed negative in those final months leading to the election.  I needed to break away, to regain perspective, balance, and a sense of something greater.  I knew it had to be a route that challenged me and would present me with an opportunity to find seclusion.  I had thought that recent snowfall in late October and early November had signaled the end of any endeavors that included higher altitudes, but then we had a mini heat wave and most of the snow melted off below 6,000’.  I pulled out maps, tinkered with loops but was not satisfied with what I was creating.  None of it seemed that inspired.

Then it hit me.  A section of one of the most popular trails in the U.S, if not the world.  A section renowned for its high traverses, rugged mountain peaks, alpine lakes and isolation.  A 75 mile stretch of trail that did not go over a single road.  With a short window of time to complete it, this section of trail would challenge me specifically as I was still nursing an injury that left me incapable of running.  It would give me the opportunity to show just how much ground a human can cover just walking. Section J of the Pacific Crest Trail.  

 

A last minute, late season,  impromptu journey into the depths of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  I floated the idea to my girlfriend and when she said she would be happy to be my shuttle service I knew I had found my adventure.  Sure the forecast looked pretty lousy for my two day window and I had fallen a bit out of shape but, that would just add to the challenge.  Fortunately in the days leading up to my departure, the forecast improved and it appeared that I would have at least one dry day out there.  This was the cherry on top of my 2016!  

 

 Starting off at Snoqualmie Pass

Starting off at Snoqualmie Pass

Pulling into the parking lot at the trailhead just off Interstate 90 I was pleased to see just one car in the beam of my headlights.  While the Wonderland had been an experience that I wouldn’t change a thing about, I wanted this to be a much more solitary journey.  One car meant that few were ahead of me of the section, perhaps traveling up to the Kendall Katwalk, a very popular destination on the PCT about six miles from the trailhead.  I checked my watch noting that it was already growing lighter and was a tad disappointed that it was already 6:30 in the morning. I had hoped to travel the first three or four miles in darkness as I was very familiar with this portion of the trail and would rather have the daylight on the end of the day when I was traveling in a landscape unfamiliar to me.

 

I chugged the last of my coffee as I shouldered my pack.  The weight was more than I was used to but it felt comfortable on my shoulders.  I turned on my headlamp and made my way to the sign at the trailhead, stopping to take a picture before hitting the trail.  Interstate 90 was a dull roar below me as I made a steady pace through the old growth forest above the pass.  Everything took on a monotone shade in the pale light filtering through an overcast sky. Immediately I noticed that I was having trouble corralling my thoughts, it felt like I was trying to herd cats in my head.  I attempted to shut it all out, to focus on each step but that effort only seemed to succeed in making my thoughts even more tangled.

 Crossing the boundary into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Crossing the boundary into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

 

Frustrated I kept on.  I tried a new tactic of focusing on my pace.  First mile, 17:39.  Second mile, 17:42.  Third mile, 17:45…

 

I went over my strategy for the section as I did this.  I knew I wanted to split the 75 miles in half, finding a place to bivy down for the night near mile 37.  Getting some rest before waking up a couple of hours prior to first light and pacing myself to finish right around 7 PM the following night.  I saw no reason to hurry and just sit at the pass waiting for Jennifer to arrive but I also wanted to ensure that I was on the trail moving during all the daylight I would have.

 

My mind began to quiet.  To my left I could see Guye Peak and Snoqualmie Mountain.  Passing the junction with the Commonwealth Basin trail, I stashed my headlamp.  I admired the sky, an array of gray and blue tones that looked like hard cold stone.  My pace brisk but not hurried, my breathing settling into a uniform rhythm.  The untidy explosion of random thoughts began to unravel, each unneeded conversation with myself slowly floating out of my mind. 

 Kendall Katwalk with Chikamin Ridge in the background

Kendall Katwalk with Chikamin Ridge in the background

 

I walked through the narrow section of trail known as the Kendall Katwalk.  Completed in 1979, this 150 yard section of the PCT was blasted out of a steeply sloped section of granite near the ridgeline.  To my right lay Rampart Ridge and to the east a temperature inversion forced a layer of clouds to hug the valley floor below me.  I was headed into the heart of the 615 square mile Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  At this altitude there is little tree cover and as such the views are unimpeded.  In the far distance I could see the trail below Chikamin Ridge and going over Chikamin Pass, nearly seven trail miles away.  Mount Thompson jut into the sky on my left as I made my way past Ridge and Alaska Lakes.   Every turn of the head was rewarded with magnificent views of alpine lakes, craggy peaks and rocky ridges.  Some autumn colors could be seen desperately clinging to the mountainsides but for the most part it appeared as though the land was accepting that winter was right around the corner.

 The PCT weaves its way around Joe Lake

The PCT weaves its way around Joe Lake

At about 11:00 AM, I took the last few steps up to Needle Sight Gap, at nearly 6,000’ this spot has commanding views of Glacier Peak, the Olympics and Mount Rainier.  It also marked the furthest I had traveled on the PCT the summer before.  From here the trail turns SE as it is confronted by Chikamin Peak and the bulk of Lemah Mountain.  I coasted along this high alpine traverse soaking in the incredible views to the south and west while admiring the jagged ridge above me.  I had completely dropped the last of my meandering thoughts and was in my natural state, moving efficiently and engaged in the present. 

 The view south from below Chikamin Ridge

The view south from below Chikamin Ridge

I topped out on Chikamin Pass near mile 14 and gazed down into the Park Lakes area.  A beautiful sub-alpine plateau surrounded by Three Queens, Four Brothers and Box Ridge.  In the far distance I could see the granite behemoth Mount Stuart cutting into the sky.  At 9,415’ tall it is the highest point in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  I quickly descended the trail and weaved my way through the park.  Up until this point the trail had been quite technical so I took advantage of the buffed out track to gain some time.  Further motivation to quicken my pace came when I ran across a very large deposit of bear scat on the trail.  Needless to say my head was on a swivel when I made my way around the bowl.

 Park Lakes from Chikamin Pass

Park Lakes from Chikamin Pass


Then BAM!  Laid out before me was the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in one view.  Savage mountains knifed their way upwards, while hanging glaciers clung to their steep sides.  Waterfalls cascaded down sheer rock slopes into steeply carved canyons.  Below me Spectacle Lake, even under the cloud cover was a brilliant deep blue, reflecting the towering mountains surrounding it in its calm waters.  I was taken with the duality of the what my eyes were seeing.  A brutal inhospitable terrain that felt almost menacing and I couldn’t help but be drawn to it.  Feeling that I was a part of it and knowing that it had a part in me. 

 The Alpine Lakes Wilderness in all its glory

The Alpine Lakes Wilderness in all its glory

 

The creation of these mountains began somewhere around 50 million years ago in the late Eocene Epoch when the North American Plate crashed into the Pacific Plate, creating episodes of volcanic igneous activity.  Over two million years ago glacial advancing and retreating scoured the area leaving deposits of rock debris and carving “U” shaped valleys throughout the landscape.  These factors have culminated in the high peaks and deep valleys so dominant in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

 

I took it all in for a few minutes before reminding myself I had at least twenty more miles to cover that day and it was after noon.  Now began 2,000’, switchbacks for the majority, to the valley floor. Sometime during these switchbacks I was interrupted by the only other humanencounter during my trip.  A chance meeting with “Sir Hikes-A-Lot” whom I had read and heard much about.  I enjoyed our visit as we passed over a variety of topics and found it fitting that we would meet here on this remote stretch of trail.  Making my way through an old burn area I noted I still had a big climb and descent ahead of me before getting to the area of Waptus Lake which was near the halfway point.  I pushed my pace on the flat sections of trail in the valley.   

 

BRIDGE OUT.  Not exactly the words I wanted to see as I passed the junction with the Lemah Meadow Trail. I hoped that I would be able to find a way across the water without getting too wet.  A mile later I came to the bridge and quickly realized, I was getting wet.  I kicked myself mentally for not thinking this through more.  In the summer heat, wet feet dry quickly especially in lighter trail runners, fording streams and smaller rivers can just be a minor nuisance.  This late in the season with rain in the forecast, getting wet feet was a larger issue.   I had plenty of room in my pack for sandals or thongs but had not brought them along.  Frustrated with myself, I plunged into the Lemah without even considering making a barefoot attempt.  Reaching the other side, constantly cursing under my breath, I sat down on a log and squeezed my socks out.  Not a mile further and I had to ford another smaller drainage.  

 

Still mumbling under my breath I began the climb out of the valley towards Escondido Ridge.  With just 2,000’ of gain in five miles I assumed the climb would be fairly easy but I found it to be much more of a grind than I bargained for.  I felt like I was crawling from switchback to switchback when,  in truth I was hitting 18 minute miles all the way up.  Like the section across the valley, these slopes were marred by burned trees which give the area a kind of desolate beauty.  Again, the hulking dark peaks to the west were constantly in view and I would take a moment at each switchback to appreciate a higher viewpoint of their flanks.

 Looking back south from Escondido Ridge.

Looking back south from Escondido Ridge.

 Views from Escondido Ridge

Views from Escondido Ridge

Eventually I made the top of the ridgeline by maneuvering through patches of snow left over from the first storm of the year.  Being above 5,000’ yet again I was able to get wide views in nearly all directions as I traversed the ridgeline for a couple of miles.  Skirting tarns under a brooding sky I became very aware of the thin orangish glowing streak just above the horizon.  Daylight was nearing an end.  I fished out my headlamp ten hours into the day, and at mile 30 the world collapsed around me and darkness won over.  The five mile descent into the Waptus Drainage went by in a blur with the ever increasing sound of the river being my only gauge to the distance I was traveling.

After crossing the Waptus River bridge at mile 35 I began to put some thought into where I could bivy for the night.  Above me through the tree cover I would catch glimpses of the moon and considered lengthening my day to take advantage of the continuing dry weather.  I stuck with my original plan, at the junction with the Spade Lake Trail I cut south towards some campsites marked on the map on the shores of Waptus Lake.  After descending a steep, short section of trail that unfortunately got my pelvis injury fired up in angry protest, I came across some campsites that I felt would make do.  I broke out my sleeping bag and bivy sack, took off my wet clothes and crawled into my little self made cocoon.  One would think that the effort a 38 mile day would sufficiently wear one out to promptly go to sleep but, this was not the case.  I tossed and turned for hours before finally falling into a fitful sleep.

 The last of the sun on day 1

The last of the sun on day 1

Sometime during the night I was woken by the pitter patter of rain hitting the bivy sack.  I burrowed deeper into my bag, appreciative that it was keeping me dry and warm.  Eventually the rain fell hard enough to make sleeping impossible.  I groped around for my headlamp and checked my watch: 04:30.  Good enough for me.  I managed to get myself dressed without getting too wet, but wincing a bit when I put my sore feet into my cold wet shoes.  I knew it would take a few miles but that they would feel better once I got moving.  Within 20 minutes I was up and moving and munching on a cold bean burrito for breakfast.

 

The world around me was surreal, a mixture of fine light rain, my breath condensing in the air and there were remnants of a star filled sky above me.  I would see brief flashes of the moon reflecting off the lake and was struck with a feeling of complete isolation.  An intense solitude that many find unnerving but for me brought on a feeling of liberation.   More frequently than I would have liked, this silence was broken by the sound of a passenger plane flying overhead. Still, I was rewarded with long bouts of quiet interrupted only by the wind blowing through the treetops and the small waterways that would grow louder until my crossing before fading out behind me when my steps carried me off.  42 miles in and the soreness of my feet was forgotten. I closed in on Deep Lake and traveled into the second dawn of this journey.
 

Emerging from a forest of hemlock and fir I strolled into the depression of Deep Lake.  Memories came to me of looking down upon this area in August of last year while climbing Mount Daniel with my Dad.  Tents had been scattered all around the lake edge as thru hikers made their way north on this final stretch of the the PCT.  That day has been incredibly hot as we climbed the mountain in just running shorts and tanktops.  I forded the outlet and once again stopped to wring out my socks.  I found myself sitting on a log, my bare feet on the ground below me, cold feet forgotten as I watched the swirling clouds mingle with the trees above me.  A mixture of gray and green colors, punctuated by the dark form of Cathedral rock towering above.  Raindrops hitting the trail, lake and my shell put me into a kind of trance.

 Cathedral Rock towers over Deep Lake

Cathedral Rock towers over Deep Lake

 Looking down at Deep Lake and the waterfalls that feed it

Looking down at Deep Lake and the waterfalls that feed it

Deep lake is just one of over 700 lakes and mountain ponds that are located in this Wilderness area.  It also ecompasses over 300 miles of Forest Service class one and two streams and the headwaters of or at least a portion of them of the Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Wenatchee, and Yakima Rivers.  The Alpine Lakes Wilderness plays a crucial role in domestic water use in the surrounding areas.  With a growing population this area is critical in providing an adequate supply of clean water.

 

I brought my thoughts back into the present.  This day was just beginning and I needed to get moving again despite how magical this place was.  Back on with the wet shoes.  I noticed that my blister protection was starting to fail on my heels. There wasn’t much I could do about it at this point, having already burned through all my blister packs.  Setting off, I began the first long climb of the day to Cathedral Pass, 1,200’ above me.  With the trail leading back into the forest, I was protected from the rain and winds as they picked up.  My legs felt fatigued and stiff and I was confident that they would warm up on this uphill march.  I was thankful for my Marmot shell, and Mountain Hardwear rain pants as they kept the precipitation at bay.  Increasingly important items as the temperature dropped and I climbed in altitude.

 

I could hear waterfalls roaring in the distance to the west and would catch brief glimpses of them through the clouds but, for the most part my views were very limited and my eyes were drawn to those things close at hand.  Small babbling brooks, colorful mushrooms and and the bright green lichen that cling to the trees at this altitude.  I will freely admit that I have little knowledge of plant or tree species, preferring to spend my time studying maps or to be immersed in Nature instead of pouring over field guides.  Just as I was beginning to wonder how long the trail would drag out the 1,200’ of gain to Cathedral Pass, I broke out of the treeline and began to see patches of snow.  I spotted the junction with the trail to Peggy’s Pond and knew that I was near the pass.
 

At 5,600’ I topped and was completely socked in. I just kept moving unable to see the sweeping views around me, choosing instead to remember them from experience.  The snow on the east and north facing slopes was much more significant and I found myself sloshing through large patches of wet, slushy snow covering the trail.  Even completely soaked, my feet remained warm.  At mile 47, not far from the pass, I crossed the junction with the Cathedral Pass Trail.  Prevalent at the junction was a sign stating another difficult fordtwo miles ahead.  This was no surprise to me.  My guidebook had made note of this ford on the newer PCT route.  However, from my interpretation the ford was nothing too risky and I chose to keep on the PCT at this point and forego the five or so mile detour.  I did grab a trekking “stick” to aid with the ford as I began the five mile traverse towards Deception Pass.  The rain continued unabated as I attempted to avoid the slushy bits of trail as best as I could. I was mostly unsuccessful.  

 

I must say I felt some trepidation thinking ahead to this noted ford as I dropped in altitude. I felt committed at this point.  Open alpine benches gave way to islands of forest between avalanche chutes with the occasional talus field.  The low clouds lifted giving me a view of Hyas Lake to my east and the ridgeline on the other side of the valley.  I heard a drainage roaring down the mountain and noted that I was near two miles from the warning sign.  Rounding a bend I came into a view of the crossing and was puzzled by the ease of the crossing at first glance.  Nothing hazardous here, just a run of the mill stream crossing.  I shrugged and quickly made my way across, leaving my fording stick leaning on a log after finishing.  Thinking the obstacle complete, my worries were lifted and I quickened my pace remembering I still had more than a marathon distance to cover.

 

At mile 50 I emerged from a batch of trees and as I crossed another section covered in alder slide, it was impossible to miss ahead of me a steeper portion of the mountain with some very large drainages roaring down, their sources hidden high in the clouds above.  I could quickly see that the trail would intersect these and I realized that I had not yet arrived at the ford in question.  Apprehension set in again and I could sense that the day of significant rain had increased the volume of this mountain creek to a level worthy of concern.  I closed in on the crossing and was confronted with a raging waterway plunging out of a cleft in the cliff face above me. 

“Well, shit. I should have probably kept that stick.”

 

I had two channels to cross with the nearest one looking the easiest.  By easiest I mean, most narrow.  The current was strong enough to knock me over and take me downstream. This would be a disaster.   My celebration of solitude took on a different tone knowing that a mistake here could have grave consequences.  I kicked myself again for forgetting my SPOT on the couch.  Finding what looked to be the narrowest spot as the water surged between two boulders, I made a running start and jumped.  While I’m not Michael Jordan by any means, I made it with plenty of room to spare.  Both of my feet immediately went out from under me and I was sliding down the side of the boulder into the water.  Fortunately I was able to grab the edge of the rock with both hands and heave myself up and to safety.

 

Now soaked from the waist down, I roved the middle bank looking for a chink in the armor of this turbulent waterway.  At its narrowest point, the water pushed up on the far bank against a cliff that I would be unable to negotiate once I crossed.  However, once free from the confines of the cliff the creek turned into a waterfall nearly 30 feet tall that looked impossible to cross.  It just felt like too much risk to attempt a crossing there. In hindsight what is interesting to me is that I didn’t consider turning around and backtracking during this time.  My mind was completely focused on the task at hand.  I knew that careful study would find a way with minimized risk.  Then I spotted it, a small niche in the cliff above the waterfall that looked as though I could shimmy through and then down on the far side of the bank. Once across I would have to downclimb about ten feet of wet slabby rock but, a fall there looked like it would only wound my pride.

I didn’t hesitate and began to wade thigh deep through the water towards the notch.  Mid-stream boulders helped me to keep my leverage but now my arms and hands were completely soaked.  I was able to keep on my feet and on the far side of the bank, down climbed a few boulders to safely arrive at the slab.  From there, having no grip whatsoever with my feet, I lowered myself to the far side of the bank using only handholds. I scrambled up a few yards of scree to the trail, looked back at the crossing at let out a shout of joy.  

 Looking back at the tricky ford

Looking back at the tricky ford

 

I took a quick video of the area and realized I was shaking a bit.  Not from the adrenaline but from being wet, very wet.  Now I faced a new challenge: keeping warm.  The next five miles from Deception Pass to Pieper Pass were spent concentrating on fighting off hypothermia.  Swinging my arms, doing a little jogging on the plush carpet like trail in this area, consuming food and gels despite not being hungry, any little trick I could think of.  As I climbed up towards Pieper Pass at nearly 6,000’ the wind was gusting strong but,  the elevation gain was warming me up quickly.  Looking around at the terrain I thought I might have a chance at getting some reception on my phone so I turned it off airplane mode and fired off a message to my mom and Jennifer.  “Less than 20 miles”, “Cold but moving well”.  Imagining them getting the messages put a smile on my face and buoyed my spirits.

 Climbing toward Pieper Pass

Climbing toward Pieper Pass


Then I crossed over from west to east on Pieper Pass and immediately forgot about my discomforts.  Below me in a deep bowl were Glacier and Surprise Lakes, around which rose rocky parapets.  A huge grin covered my face and the Type 2 fun was over.  Then the rain quit falling, and blue sky started to make its presence felt.  “Can this even be happening?” I asked myself.  The smiling continued as dropped down into the glacially carved valley, taking in all the little nuances of the terrain around me.  Quickly glancing at my map I noted that I had another pass to climb on the far side of the valley that looked like it offered equally impressive views.  I pushed on, wanting to make sure I saw the deep valley of Trapper Creek which feeds into Icicle Creek heading eastward towards some of the most magnificent mountains of the state, in the daylight.

 Glacier Lake and the PCT below

Glacier Lake and the PCT below


Rising above Surprise Lake as I crossed large talus and boulder fields, the sun shined down on me and I soaked up its warm rays.   I was struck with a similar feeling I had on the Wonderland of not wanting the journey to end.  That the discomforts I felt were of little consequence when compared to the rush of joy and happiness in the moment.  The feeling of doing exactly what I was meant to do and by doing so, no happier place could be found. 

A short steep climb found me atop Trap Pass, breathless from the climb and the sweeping landscapes.  I was 500’ above Trap Lake, the source waters tumbling down from the ridges above.  The lake feeding Trapper Creek makes a four mile journey to the confluence of Icicle Creek.  Far in the distance the sun shone brightly on the clouds that were lingering over the Chiwaukum Range.  Tailing right below the ridgeline to the west I could see the PCT for a couple of miles as it wound towards Hope Lake.

 

I followed the trail below this ridgeline, head craned to my right taking in all that I could as the sun began to sink below the irregular silhouette created by the mountains and crags cradling Trap Lake.  The trail here was less technical, giving my sore calves a break and allowing me to gawk more freely.  I passed from bench to bench between stands of trees admiring the muted oranges and yellows that were enhanced by the sun and clouds, a giant filter on the landscape.  Downward to Hope Lake, the air began to chill and the glowing autumn vegetation turned drab as the sun disappeared below the western horizon.  Meandering through the forest I to the shore of Mig Lake.  Minutes later, the world became dark on the second dusk of my trip. 

 Trap Lake below with Chiwaukum Range in the distance

Trap Lake below with Chiwaukum Range in the distance

 The PCT stretched out before me

The PCT stretched out before me


I admired the openness of the area surrounding this small lake and expected to finally see some wildlife, sadly, another day passed without a sighting.  This seemed strange to me considering the remote location.  I begrudgingly dug my headlamp out of my jacket pocket and turned it on.  As if on cue, the rain began to fall again and my world was confined again to the small area illuminated by my light.  Another climb started and the weather worsened.  Wind and fog combined with the rain turned everything otherworldly and I felt myself get somewhat disoriented not being able to see any landmarks, trusting in the trail in front of me to lead me towards my destination.

 Saying goodbye to the sun on day 2

Saying goodbye to the sun on day 2

 

About seven miles out I turned my phone on again and messaged Jennifer that I was closing in.  She quickly messaged back saying she was just leaving Seattle.  Suddenly my feeling of solitude and isolation ended as I felt like I was being pulled back into civilization.  I pushed on through the ugly weather, my gear once again up to the task of protecting me.  I marched onwards with my head down for the most part, concentrating on my foot placement.  Passing the junction with Icicle Creek trail I began to let myself think about what I was close to accomplishing.  A 75 mile traverse through some very remote portions of our state late in the year.  While I wasn’t setting a speed record, I knew that doing it in a 36 hour window was a feat not easily achieved.  

 

The rain stopped again and the moon fought to break through the clouds.  Out of the gloom the shape of power line materialized.  The straight lines and form of the tower looked alien to my eyes after seeing only natural shapes the past two days on the trail.   This was followed by a chairlift and some rough roads before making my way up to the final climb of the section.  It was a short climb and I could finally see the lights of Stevens Pass, all that remained was a two mile drop to the trailhead a little less than a thousand feet below.  

 

Like the Wonderland, I was hit with a wave of emotions during that final couple of miles.  Though I had been out for only 36 hours, it felt as if it had been longer.  I played out in my head that I had just walked through the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, from one major pass to another while crossing paths with only one other human.  At moments like these, putting this all into perspective is difficult, that always comes later and sometimes as in this case, weeks later.  In the moment I cherished the final steps, even on sore legs and blistered feet leading to the trailhead.  I leaned up against the sign at the trailhead and another smile broke out on my face.  And just like the Wonderland, I knew that I would be back again next year at that moment. 

 Finished. 75 miles in 36 hours.

Finished. 75 miles in 36 hours.

 

Jennifer’s warm car felt like paradise when she arrived shortly after.  Despite a brief wait, once I stopped moving my body had begun shaking again.  Quickly I began to fall asleep and it seemed like only minutes before I was back at her place soaking in a hot shower before stuffing my face with food.  In the days following,  physically I felt little after effects other than the nasty blisters on my heels,  and while mentally I felt better than I had leaving the trailhead at Snoqualmie, I couldn’t help but feel the effects of a post-adventure hangover.  While the trip had served to re-center my balance and flush a feeling of negativity out of me, I still needed some time to adjust back to civilized surroundings.  Even though I had only been out for 36 hours, they had been eventful and of a quality I had seldom seen before.  While I have been successful in expanding both my physical and mental focus while out in the wilderness, I still have much room for improvement in the decompression afterwards.  

 

It must also be noted that as I did research in preparation for writing this, I became increasingly aware of just how close we came to not having this protected land available to us at all.  After a long bitter battle, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a fairly new designation, having been established on July 12, 1976 by President Ford.  Further expansions have been added on since that time, but a struggle continues to protect areas like the Pratt River Valley, with bills introduced to protect that river stalling in Congress.  We nature lovers and conservationists have a responsibility to be vigilant, adding our support in any way possible to ensure these wild places are protected for the generations to come.  We cannot allow the shortsightedness so prevalent in our society to dictate how these lands are used and managed.  These lands are a national resource of the future to be enjoyed by the many, not just temporary local commodities to be exploited by a few. 


CONtributer:

Stuke Sowle

Choose Mountains Ambassador: Washington

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