Bean Burritos and a Whole Lot of Zen on the Wonderland

  WRITTEN BY:    STUKE SOWLE       Choose Mountains Ambassador

WRITTEN BY: STUKE SOWLE 

Choose Mountains Ambassador

…the unimaginable age of the mountains and the fine mesh of living things that lay across them would remind him that he was part of this order and insignificant within it, and he would be set free.
— Ian McEwan
  Tahoma comes into view from the Wonderland

Tahoma comes into view from the Wonderland

 

I suppose I should start off by admitting that I am not a writer.  Hell, I have a hard time even pretending to be one.  I promised myself and others that I would start writing about my experiences.   While out on the trail, or scrambling some loose chossy bullshit that has me questioning why I am out there, I formulate fantastic, witty passages about my current experience in my head and think how great they are going to sound to the reader.  Yet time and time again, I get home and poof, it’s all gone.  So I fall back on the familiar to me, I edit some pretty pictures and lean on them to tell the story.

Problem is, despite that clichéd saying, pictures aren’t always worth a thousand words. 

Perhaps part of my struggle comes from growing up reading the works of incredible Nature authors like Muir, Thoreau, and Abbey.  How could I possibly write something that compares to their works?  But I have come to understand that I don’t need to.  Just as I understand I will never be the climber Ueli Steck is or the runner Kilian Jornet is.  I learned early on in adventuring, I just need to be me and to improve upon myself day-to-day both physically and mentally.  How simple it seems now that all I had to do was use that attitude I had towards challenging myself in the outdoors towards writing to begin to push me into my figurative first steps. 

I will drop another cliché idea: If it makes you uncomfortable, it is probably worth doing.   So with that,  I want to tell you about my love for this special mountain we have here in the Pacific Northwest. 

 

Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.
— John Muir

 

Officially named Mount Rainier in 1890, the mountain was known before by the native people as “Tacoma”, “Tahoma”, “Tacobeh” and “Pooskaus”.  Truth be told, at over 800,000’ years old, she is has probably been named by a dozen different peoples as their travels have taken them near the mountain.   At 14,411’, she is the highest mountain in Washington and the Cascade Range and fifth tallest in the contiguous United States. 

But her height does not tell the full story of this mountain.  With respect to both Mount Whitney, and Mount Elbert the state high points of California and Colorado whose summits I have visited and are beautiful in their own right, they just don’t hold a candle to this unique mountain that literally looms over the surrounding countryside.  Tahoma (the name I am fond of), has a prominence of 13,210’ just slightly edging the prominence of K2.  Yes.  That K2.   She is home to 26 glaciers, including the biggest by area (Emmons) and the biggest by volume (Carbon) in the lower 48 states.  Those 26 glaciers give birth to six major rivers that flow the short distance into the Puget Sound.

She is such an impressive mountain that in 1899, 236,000 acres of the mountain and its surrounding land were designated the fifth national park.  Approximately 58 percent of the park is forested, 23 percent is subalpine parkland, and the remainder is alpine. Half of which is vegetated and the other half consists of permanent snow and ice. Forest ages range from less than 100 years old on burned areas and moraines left by receding glaciers to old-growth stands 1,000 or more years. Some alpine heather communities have persisted in the park for up to 10,000 years.

 I promise you have not stumbled onto the Wikipedia page for the mountain. I want to convey a sense of how unique not only the alpine aspects of the mountain are, but how incredibly diverse and rich her flanks are.  Each year between 8,000 and 13,000 people travel to the mountain to attempt to summit on what will be a very challenging climb.  Having climbed the Emmons Route as a teenager, it has made a lasting impression on me to this day yet I was only getting half of the “story” of this mountain. 

For around the mountain, winding its way through 93 miles of lush temperate rain forest,  sub-alpine meadows and canyons, crossing rivers, skirting lakes, passing by cascading waterfalls and revealing panoramic views of the glaciers tumbling off the mountain, is the Wonderland Trail.   Apparently only about 300 individuals attempt the full loop each year, taking around 10 to 14 days to complete it. 

So, true to my style, I figured two days would be perfect.  This is the story.

Typically a 1 AM alarm jolts me out of a deep sleep and it takes more than a few minutes for me to grasp my surroundings while questioning my sanity.  This time things were different.   Barely three notes had played and I was scampering out of bed and reaching for my running shorts.  It was early September, and the forecast promised perfect conditions for a trail running adventure.  Having packed the day before, I was out the door within 15 minutes and on the road to Sunrise.  My jumping off point on the Wonderland just 45 miles from my front door.

As I made my way towards the mountain on mostly deserted roads, I reflected on my previous attempt of the loop in June of 2015.  I had been trail running for approximately 15 months at the time, and felt that my three day attempt was well within my wheelhouse.  I would average about thirty miles a day with my mom picking me up each night.  It was a ridiculously early attempt for the Wonderland which typically sees significant snow on the trail well until July and even August, but as most Pacific Northwesterners are painfully aware of, the winter of 2015 was the winter that wasn't .  Some areas received 10% of the usual snowpack and Tahoma was no exception.  Already in June we were seeing temps soar into the 90’s and I had not gained much experience in that kind of heat.

I had started the loop at White River that summer and was headed in a clockwise direction.  My first day was a 32 mile leg to Longmire.  I felt strong at the beginning, but as I neared the 15 mile mark, the heat started to become a factor.  I wasn’t drinking enough despite plentiful water sources and on the descent into Indian bar, my kidneys began to ache.   By mile 25 I was struggling, and was dealing with the unfamiliar sensation of having to pee constantly yet when I would stop, nothing.  Finally just a few miles out of Longmire, I noticed blood in my urine and I knew I had overdone it.  With more heat in the forecast, I took the safe option out and bailed on day 2. 

It was a disappointment at the time, but by then I had learned to not get down on myself and and chalked it up as a learning experience.  As that summer progressed, I was able to acclimate myself to the heat but in August with my successful car-to-car of Glacier Peak in 17 hours, I was bitten by the ultraneering bug and my focus changed.

This time I felt more ready than ever.  Despite a summer concentrating on bagging Bulger Peaks and not long trail runs, I had trained my legs to take on lots of elevation gain and long days of climbing and descending but more importantly, I had tapped into my philosophy of zenventuring.   Slowly gaining experience in the mixture of Zen and traveling through the mountains.  Pages could be written on this outlook towards adventure and perhaps someday I will have the skill to do so but in the meantime I will attempt to summarize it in two words, “being present”.  Honoring each and every moment, recognizing it for how special it is and staying within that. 

My mind had wandered from the present as I drove into Buckley and suddenly the red and blue lights of a police car lit up my rearview mirror.  Oops.  However, after a friendly conversation with the officer, and despite about four infractions, she let me off the hook wishing me a safe journey around the mountain.   By 3 AM I was pulling into the nearly empty lot at Sunrise.  Shivering in the near freezing level temperatures, I quickly threw on my running vest, and headed for the trail.  I appreciated the minimal weight I was carrying, another example of fine tuning I had done over the past 14 months since my last attempt.  In total I carried: a light shell, mid-weight fleece, lightweight capilene, gloves and buff.  Along with this I had three bean burritos from Taco Bell, a handful of gels and waffles and 34 oz of water carrying capacity.   For footwear I had chosen to go with a pair of road running shoes from Salomon given the less technical nature of the trail.  Comfort superseded the need for aggressive traction on this journey.

 

 

 The Journey begins at Sunrise

The Journey begins at Sunrise

 

I jogged down the service road towards it’s junction with the Wonderland, quickly getting the blood flowing and the legs warmed up after the initial jolt of cold air.  Within ten minutes I was at the sign indicating you had reached the Wonderland Trail and with a smile on my face, let the adventure begin.

I will not bore you with a mile by mile account of my journey.  Heck, I couldn’t if I wanted to.  I have noticed as I tap into being present, my memories of my trips are fuzzy.  Once the moment has passed, it’s on to the next.  On more technical routes I will file away specific portions of the trip to memory as they are important to remember when sharing it with others, but on something as straightforward as the Wonderland, there is no need for it.  One only needs to follow the trail.

Within moments of starting I could tell I was completely dialed in.  Normally on an early morning start, it takes me six to eight miles to get into the flow.  Not today.  I usually am not a huge fan of running at night as I feel I am missing the scenery, but as my focus shifted from the small portion of the world lit up by my headlamp, to the millions of stars overhead, I knew I had made the right call.   I was seeing the mountain in a different way as its bulk was silhouetted by the complete lack of stars in that portion of the sky.   And there, just visible to my eye was a line of lights along the Emmons Glacier.  I was not alone out there looking up at the Universe in wonder.  I imagined momentarily what they must be seeing, feeling and what the day would bring for them.

Now some of you might be wondering, “What direction is this guy headed in?  Where is he headed on the first day??”.  I had elected to go counterclockwise to Longmire on day one.  The first 15 miles of the trail traveling over some pretty mellow elevation changes, allowing me to swallow up some miles before I hit the climb to Spray Park and the challenging gain and loss of the west side of the mountain.   This is exactly how it went, the miles melted by as I moved from the alpine area of Sunrise, and dropped down into the forested canyon that has been carved out by the Winthrop Glacier.  In the dark, it was not the sights that garnered my attention but the sounds.  The roar of Winthrop Creek as it emerges from the glacier steadily increasing as approached the canyon bottom.  I was well ahead of my planned pace as I crossed the log bridge over this creek.  I paused long enough on the bridge to take in the roaring, murky glacier water and I could faintly hear the sound of rocks being pushed downstream towards the West Fork of the White River.  It occurred to me that not so long ago, the spot I was standing on was buried under hundreds of feet of glacial ice.  Woah.

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Because of my pace, I continued past Mystic Lake in the dark.  Just one of the 400 and some odd lakes in the National Park.  Behind me I could begin to see the faint traces of light on the eastern horizon as the Earth continued its path around the sun as it has done for billions of years.  Seemingly endless sunrises had been seen upon these ridges and valleys and yet this one was special because it was in this moment.  An Alan Watts quote came to mind as I trotted along,

Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.
— Alan Watts

I think you are onto something there Alan.

Gliding through Moraine Park the world began to wake up around me, birds singing their songs, Marmots giving warning of my approach, a kind of animal opera all around.  While the mountain, ever there, presided over it all.  Then the light of the world was dimmed again with another descent into a canyon carved out by a glacier.  The massive Carbon Glacier, by volume the largest glacier in the lower 48.  The glacier runs nearly six miles from its source at the Willis Wall.   Because of its location on the north side of the mountain and the fact that the lower portions of the glacier are covered in an insane patchwork of rock, this glacier has receded at a slower pace than the other glaciers on the mountain.  The trail here has an unobstructed view of the terminus of the glacier and what a view it is.   The Carbon River plunges out of its snout as you hear a steady amount of cracks and groans emanating from the ice.  Here at approximately 3,500’ is the end of a glacier that during the Ice Age was so large that it reached the Puget Sound over 30 miles away. 

 The Carbon River terminus, the summit of Rainier seven miles and 11,000’ above

The Carbon River terminus, the summit of Rainier seven miles and 11,000’ above

 

Now nearly 15 miles into the day, I crossed the suspension bridge over the Carbon River marveling at the multitude of channels that the river has created over the years, depositing glacial silt and rocks over a dozen miles downstream.   The suspension bridge was a reminder though that the first big task of the day was at hand, the climb from the Carbon River up to Spray Park.  3,000’ of climbing lay ahead and this was just the first big climb of the day.  I chomped down a waffle and set a strong steady pace up the trail.  No need to blow myself up with thirty some miles to go.

Yet, it was different this time.  The climb seemed gentle almost and my legs didn’t feel taxed.  I grew confident that all that training in the winter and spring was really paying dividends as I rose higher and higher above the river.  As I rounded a corner, nearly patting myself on the back my eyes came upon a sow and her two cubs not ten yards from the trail.  I stopped dead in my tracks at this new predicament.  All three were busy rooting around near some trees, fattening up for the long sleep that lay not far ahead.  I considered my options as they grubbed away, oblivious to my presence.  At this point I had lost count of how many bears I had seen on the trail, but every single time once they knew I was there, they bolted.  So instead of trying to sneak around these three and perhaps startling mom, I let them know I was there.

“Heeeeeeey bear!”  Mom looks up, gives me the once over and goes back to grubbing.  The Cubs head’s shoot up, see me and in an instant have bolted off in opposite directions.  Ok.   “Heeeeey mom!”.  Another cursory glance before plunging deeper into the trees searching for whatever delectable goodies that bears love so much are located there.  Fine.  I let her know that I’m walking by on the trail and she shouldn’t fuck with me.  Then I tiptoe down the trail past her as quickly as possible.  Once I am past I start laughing at myself for tip toeing.  What the hell?  Ecstatic that she didn’t Hugh Glass me, I get my legs back to churning up the last stretch of trail before it tops out at Spray Park.

 The mountain from Spray Park

The mountain from Spray Park

The big climb behind me, and one of the most gorgeous alpine parks laid out below me I let out a hoot and began to traverse Spray Park.  In the summer this park explodes with wildflowers, and bees… and people.  Today it explodes with autumn colors and well, just me.  Glorious!  I wave at a deer in the distance and yell “good morning”.   It is not impressed and darts off.  Spray Park quickly falls behind me and again, I am running through giant stands of forest, linking up with the Wonderland just below Mowich Lake before dropping down towards the Mowich River surrounded by an explosion of green with strands of sunlight trickling through.

Here begins a steady rhythm of descent and climbing on the western side of the mountain in mostly timbered stretches.  It is here that the trip becomes a blur of passing trees, sun splotched sections of trail, the cadence of my steps and breathing.  Completely dialed in, my footfalls falling in beat with Keith Moon’s drumming,

I’d gladly lose me to find you,

I’d gladly give up all I got,

To find you I’m going to run and never stop.
— Pete Townsend
 Climbing out of the North Puyallup River, the cliff walls towering nearly 3,000’ above

Climbing out of the North Puyallup River, the cliff walls towering nearly 3,000’ above

As I make my way around this isolated western portion of the mountain it dawns on me at the signed junctions that I might have my mileage wrong for the first leg.  I had mapped it out on Strava and Runkeeper and both had said it would be 50 miles, but as I reviewed the mileage on the signs it was dawning on me that it was going to be more like 55.   Fortunately as I climbed out of the North Puyallup River and into the alpine meadows surrounding Aurora Lake and St Andrews Lake, that five miles seemed trivial.  The west side of the mountain towered over me, playing coy in some clouds that had gathered like a veil around her upper slopes.

 The mountain hides in the clouds as I circle St Andrews Lake

The mountain hides in the clouds as I circle St Andrews Lake

But then around mile 44, I hit a wall.  The trail turned rocky coming out of the South Puyallup and every step was taking way too much energy.  I sat down, munched on a burrito for a couple of minutes and closed my eyes.  I was projecting myself too far forward, worrying about the extra distance.  I had lost focus.  I removed my shoes to pour out some pebbles and noticed the messages I had written to myself just in case this happened.  “Be present” on the left shoe and “This moment is forever” on the right.  I took some deep breaths, re-centered and started back up the trail.

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I was back in business after that. Or maybe it was just the mountain distracting me.  Climbing back up to the 5,000’ level of the mountain had put me back into prime viewing territory and the mountain was pulling out all the stops.  Above me the Tahoma Glacier tumbled down from up high and to my right was the canyon the glacier had carved out years ago.  It felt otherworldly and I kept stumbling as I couldn’t take my eyes from what lay before me.  I also took note of the colors of the mountain and realized I only had a couple of hours before night fell.   It was time for my final canyon crossing of the day and it was a pretty mellow one, with the reward of a long suspension bridge over the Tahoma Creek, followed by a climb up to Indian Henry’s, the last climb of the day.

 The views of Glacier Island after the climb out of South Puyallup 

The views of Glacier Island after the climb out of South Puyallup 

As I topped out at Indian Henry’s, twilight was starting to settle in and I intended to make a good pace on the long mostly downhill seven miles to Longmire.  I took a final peek at the mountain as I began to drop down those “steps” that the Wonderland has so many of and in doing so, fouled my footing up and came down funny on my left leg which shot up and I felt a twinge in my back.  Uh oh.  I’ve been here before.  That twinge turned into spasms and I was slowed to a hobble.  I took some ibuprofen in an attempt to dull it a bit and put the pain in the back of my mind. 

At this point I was 48 miles and 16 hours into the day and the ridges, forest and sky have taken on an ethereal glow that almost always happens for me after I start pushing past 14 straight hours.  It feels as though the world has a pulse around me. 

Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.
— John Muir

This has become my favorite of Muir’s passages for it succinctly describes the feeling that comes over me on these long mountain days, and in the shortest possible answer as to why I choose mountains.  That despite the reminder of how insignificant I am in the scheme of things, at the same time the mountains show me that I everything is one and in doing so, one realizes that they are in truth timeless in that moment.  True freedom.  A euphoria that is has never had an equal in my life.

The last seven miles drift by in a series of ever changing filters as the sun sets and I am completely wrapped into the moment.  The dull ache of my back was slowing my descent to a walk but, not negatively impacting the experience.  Finally darkness closes around me completely for the last three miles and again I am left with the world shrunk to what I can see in the glow of my headlamp.  For me, these days that begin before the sun rises and end well after it sets are the ultimate, a constantly moving horizon and landscape as my feet cover huge distances over challenging terrain.  Tapping into what my body has been designed to do over millions of years of trial and error. 

After nearly 18 hours I hobble into the Longmire parking lot, spotting my girlfriends car and giving her a huge smile as she steps out to greet me.  I immediately realize how grateful I am to have someone as supportive of her by my side.  We spend the following day lounging around in a cabin we had rented, stuffing myself full of her amazing cooking and decompressing from the journey of the previous day. As incredible as my day was before, the little moments resting with her were just as special. 

I decided on a late start the third morning so that Jennifer and I could have a bit of a morning together.  She dropped me off at Longmire at 8:30, and in the cold morning air I began to follow the trail towards Reflection Lakes.  My back and knee were very stiff at this point and I knew that I would be slower than the previous day, but I only had 36 miles or so to go and that by starting at Sunrise and going counterclockwise, I had set myself up to have an incredible views for the final 18 miles to lean on as my body tired. 

 

I warmed up quickly and found myself jogging the gentle climb and in the blink of an eye, was at Reflection Lake, looking up at Tahoma in the morning light.  I couldn’t help but be struck by the feeling that she approved of my effort.  I paused for a few moments, taking it all in feeling the power of the mountain, trees, and rivers flowing through me before setting off down Stevens Canyon.  From Stevens Canyon, through Box Canyon and up to Cowlitz Divide was a flash of rocky outcroppings above me, sun dappled forest, and a climb up to more alpine meadows leading the way to Indian Bar.  Breaking the ridgeline, the mountain was now a near constant companion to my left as I entered what is one of my favorite sections of the trail.

 

 First view of the mountain as I crossed the Nisqually River

First view of the mountain as I crossed the Nisqually River

The descent into Indian Bar provides panoramic views unlike any other section of the mountain, spread out before you is the entire diverse ecosystems of the mountain in one gaze.  Deep forest below, alpine parks both ahead and to your right, roaring waterfalls cascading down into Ohanapecosh Park, and the barren rock and ice of the high alpine above.  It is a paradise.  Taking my only significant break at the shelter at Indian Bar, I imagined what it would be like to spend a summer here, to explore every nook and cranny, converse with the animals, to become intimately familiar with the moods of the mountain.

 Descending into Indian Bar

Descending into Indian Bar

It was a fantasy I had to cut short, the sun had begun its descent in the west and I wanted to get to Sunrise just as the sun set.  Ironic eh?  The climb out of Indian Bar is short, but brutal.  I smiled at the several groups of hikers that I passed, not envious at all of the huge loads they shouldered.  Within an hour I was at Panhandle Gap, huge views to both my north and south.  My back a lot looser at this point, I took up a rambling pace down the rocky, technical trail singing out loud and reveling in the moment.  A herd of mountain sheep gave me a disapproving look as I approached, so I put on my inside voice and gave them an apologetic wave.

 

 Descending from Panhandle Gap towards Summerland

Descending from Panhandle Gap towards Summerland

Down through Summerland, another blissful alpine park area, over Fryingpan Creek following it for a few miles before departing to head towards the White River, the wide buffed trail making for quick miles as I raced the setting sun.  I was now nearing 90 miles on the trail and with the exception of the back and knee, feeling incredible.  Feeding off the power of Nature around me, as I rounded a large bend and crossed the White River.  One of the larger tributaries fed by the mountain, the White River is given birth to by the Emmons Glacier, the largest glacier by area in the lower 48.  I was on the home stretch, a two and a half mile climb of 2,000’ followed by about a mile and a half of wandering around Shadow Lake.

 

I felt a hum in the air as my legs found the perfect pace on the climb.  A combination of runner's high and the grandest stage.  The sudden thought hitting me that I wasn’t ready for it to end.  I tucked that away as I rose above the treeline and into the park that lies just below Sunrise.  The climb complete, I witnessed the dying sun light up the flanks of the mountain above me.  Behind me to the east, the horizon began to glow in a myriad of colors, framed by the black outlines of trees.  I broke into a slow trot, all my senses nearly overwhelmed by the moment.  It was literally perfect, the flow of the day bringing me to the finish of the trail as the world gave me a light show in celebration of this personal achievement.

 

 The mountain from the final climb up to Sunrise

The mountain from the final climb up to Sunrise

I am not much of a crier, but a few tears may have been shed.

 

 Nature’s light show for the final mile of the 92

Nature’s light show for the final mile of the 92

Upon returning home, I realized that despite the 90-some miles and 50,000’ of elevation change, I wasn’t quite done with the mountain.  After a day of rest, I once again drove back to the mountain and took a trip up to Camp Muir at 10,100’ so that I could experience that rock and ice world that I had looked up from the trail that surrounded the mountain.  As I sat there listening to the mountain move and breathe around me, I made a promise to myself to return next year and experience the mountain completely.  To both summit and circumnavigate the mountain in a three day span.