An in depth review of Tiare Vincent’s experience with Run Like a Girls’s adventure and yoga retreat to Costa Rica.Read More
In Misadventures: Finding Magic In Mishap, a bi-monthly Choose Mountains Blog Post, Allison (@liveuntethered) shares stories of falter. When we try to fly, we’re going to fall. And when we venture somewhere new, we’re going to take wrong turns. Let’s embrace it!Read More
Since starting Choose Mountains in January of 2015, I’ve acquired some amazing ambassadors that have been just killing it, trail running all over the place. I have the opportunity and gratitude watch the baddassery that they bring to whatever space they're in, whether it’s running 58 miles to make it to Chipotle by closing hours of 10pm….or dancing their way up multiple 14ers. I get to see humble Stuke run 30 miles combining multiple peaks in the dark hours of the night before heading off to his 9-5 day at work. They just have a stoke for what they do while having that huge living-my-best-life-smile on their faces. So here at Choose Mountains we receive a lot of questions wanting advice on how to start trail running. I chose to take some of these questions (20, to be exact) to a few of my ambassadors and fellow inspirations when it comes to running. But first.......
Lets Meet the Crew:
1. What are your tips for running uphill?
Ellie: Just walk! A good power hike gets the job done 🙂 it's also usually more efficient and even faster.
Benjamin: For me, and I assume a lot of middle of the pack runners, the answer is power hiking! The first thing you have to do is get comfortable with the idea of slowing down to a hike. That was the hard part for me. I felt if I wasn’t running, I was failing. When I got a coach and was INSTRUCTED to hike the uphills, I was amazed! Even the elites will hike some of the uphills. You exert less energy with less turnover to go the same speed or distance. Also, trekking poles. LOVE them!
Kim: You should learn where it becomes more efficient to power hike uphill. I can power hike up the steep stuff faster thank I can run. It saves energy. Hill repeats help build strength. There's lots of you tube videos on how to do them.
2. What are your tips for running downhill if you normally have bad knees?
Benjamin: My last 100k was an ass kicker. The first 50k had over 9000 feet of climbing and descending. I was running with a friend of mine who has done over 100 ultras in his career. I am relatively new to the sport and needed to have my reins pulled in to keep me from blowing out my quads in the first half. Mark mentioned to me to focus on landing more on the forefoot and make sure the calves take the brunt of the pressure of the stride. The calves are much more fortified and can help sustain the quads, and in turn the knees, for later in the race and my career.
Kim: Shorten your stride and lean into the trail. Let yourself go, don't fight it.
3. what's The best way to fuel for a long run? are the supplies you should bring with you for long runs different than the 10 essentials for a hike?
Ellie: The best way to fuel is to bring calories that you enjoy. I usually bring a summit treat (pop tarts, chocolate, gummies) and a few bars. You definitely always wanna have more calories than you plan on eating.
Benjamin: This answer might be the one you hear the most. Fuel is very personal. It is what works for you and what works for me may not work for you. The 10 essentials are much different than what you need for an ultra. The 10 essentials are there for emergencies of survival and should always be in your pack. The fuel for a long run goes way beyond that. Bank on at least consuming two hundred or more calories per hour depending on how your body works. The way you consume those calories is up to you, be it liquid, gels, or solid foods. Practice with all of them to find what works for you then STICK WITH IT!!! Don’t change a week before the race because an article you read sounded interesting or made sense to you. The last thing you want to do is change your fueling style and have it be the part of your long run or race that upends your day. And as far as water goes, drink when you are thirsty. That is the best advice I can give. My last race was a hot one. I tried to drain my two twenty ounce bottles between aid stations to be safe.
Kim: Naturally you will start off bringing more than you need, then you will hate carrying it all, and you'll go minimal. One thing I always carry is a back country supply first aid kit. They make a trail runner first aid (it's very small) and has everything I need in it. This comes in handy when you fall because you let yourself go running downhill ( : As well, I always carry an extra pair of socks.
4. What kind of shoes do I need to get?
Michele: Everyone is going to be different for their trail running requirements. Think about your strengths and weaknesses during a regular run and apply that to what kind of shoe you'll need. I personally like a light weight shoe that still has lots of traction, because I like to go fast but am also a klutz (Salomon Speedcross are my go to for running on technical terrain. Salomon Sense Pro 2 is my fave for softer less technical PNW type terrain). I always highly suggest going to a running shoe store to get fitted for a good running shoe. This will be the most expensive thing you'll need for running but it's the MOST important. Most running stores have the option for if the shoe doesn't work out after running on it for a few runs, you can bring it back for an exchange for a better fit.
Benjamin: Like food, get the shoe that feels and fits best for you. Also, keep in mind the terrain you will be running on. Besides that, it is one of the most personal decisions you can make. Find what works and go with it! No one shoe is best and what works for one may not work for you.
Kim: That is a loaded question. It took me a fully year to find that the Saucony Xodus fits my foot like a glove, or sock, or pillow. You have to put the time in to find the right shoe for yourself. It's huge for injury prevention.
5. Is there a strategy to tackling the hike topographically? Do I go harder in these spots vs. these spots or is it pacing the same speed the whole time?
Benjamin: That is up to you and your training. For me, if it is flat, rolling or downhill, I am running in some way shape or form. The slight ups, I will jog with a steady turnover and the steep climbs, I take my time, but I don’t stop. Just keep going and think to yourself, what goes up must come down!!
Kim: You won't really know the first time you run something. The more you get to know the trail the more you'll push and pull in different spots. I normally run with how I feel at the time.
6. What is your diet?
Ellie: I'm vegan, but I run on a strict eat anything you want diet. Ask any of my friends and they'll tell you that I pretty much live if snack foods (oh popcorn 😍). Calories are calories, right? Just as long as you're eating ENOUGH! I would recommend at least trying to throw some greens and protein in there, though 🙂
Benjamin: For me, I eat what I want. When my body wants something it tells me. I don’t deny it, or myself, anything. I tried a strict diet during a training cycle and found no significant difference in performance. Mind you, I am not eating fast food or processed foods all the time, I eat a ton of veggies, occasionally some meat and a ton of pizza!
Kim: I have been a vegan for 6 years. I eat a lot of greens.
7. Good trails to train on?
Benjamin: Make sure your long runs mimic the race terrain as much as possible.
Kim: I haven't met a trail I don't like.
8. How do you not slip while running down loose dirt paths?
Ellie: You do... and you embrace it. Controlled falling is a thing, and if you act like you know where your feet are going, hopefully it won't look like out of control flailing. But I'd be lying if I said that I didn't eat it on a regular basis.
Michele: I always make sure to look at a few feet ahead of me on the ground to anticipate what kind of obstacles I'm doing to have to get around. Downhill tip is to lean back a little to help your weight give a little balance. Uphill tip is to lean forward so that you are using the whole power of your body to get uphill (I personally will lean my hands against my thighs on harder climbs for extra power hiking leverage).
Benjamin: I don’t have much practice with trails like that, but I did run down the South Sister in Oregon and from the summit, the first two miles down are just scree-filled trails. All I did was strap in to my shoes and let gravity do it’s work. On the technique side, the only thing I focused on was making sure my strides were short and the contact my feet had on the ground was minimal. Quick turnover to keep my balance and let the sliding happen. The biggest mistake you could make was trying to control the uncontrollable.
Kim: I do slip. All. The. Time.
9. What's a good snack or energy source?
Stuke: PB Snickers are my current favorite to get a bit of an energy bump. But honestly, there are so many options out there for you. I find it best to not overthink it. Most foods are going to work as fuel. My biggest challenge is my lack of appetite while out there so I try to pack things that I can nibble on every thirty minutes or an hour. If all else fails I will turn to gels for a kickstart as they are quick and easy.
Benjamin: I can’t live without GU Salted Caramel, Tailwind or power logs! Power logs are the creation of a gentleman names Faron. I was sleeping the Orcas 50k with him and around mile twenty-two I was bonking. I hadn’t eaten much and was feeling out of it. Faron whips out a Tupperware container and inside was pure calorie-filled gold. Pepperoni sticks, cheese, mustard, and pickles ,wrapped in a flour tortilla. Not only was it a life saver, but delicious as well!!
Sawna: Some go to snacks I love are a tortilla spread with half almond butter, half fig preserve sprinkles with hemp seed, and maybe a little bit of honey. It's sweet, full of good fats, carbs and protein! Another easy go to are pecan stuffed dates or steamed sweet potatoes!
Kim: I like Bearded Brothers Bars and Welchs fruit snacks.
10. I don't wear a pack when I run but see most of you using the hydration vest system. Should I get one too? And which one do you like best?
Michele: Yes! I don't know what I would do without my hydration vest. Trail running requires a lot more work than road running and you will also be out there a lot longer for a 10 mile trail run vs 10 mile road run. So always having available water is VERY important. It will feel a little weird at first but once you realize how nice it is to have all these pockets to put your phone, keys, food and always have water, you'll love it. I personally love Nathan hydration packs. I currently use the Nathan Vaporshadow but would also suggest checking out the Nathan Vapor Howe which is less bulky but has lots of storage.
Benjamin: The elites don’t use them for the most part due to the fact that the time between aid for them is so short. I wear one for a few reasons. The first being I hate to have things in my hand when I run. The second is I can carry everything I need and not worry about drop bags or aid stations having what I WANT. I have a method to my fueling and I like to make sure it’s available when I want or need it. I love the Ultimate direction PB Ultra Vest. It hold enough for long adventures but feels light enough for 50k races….plus it has an awesome system to store trekking poles up front for easy accessibility.
Kim: I love my Ultimate Direction vest. I have Anton's model but they make women specific. I have had this vest for 3 years. Quality.
11. What do I pack to bring with me? I usually pack all the essentials and then some, but they don't fit in running packs!
Stuke: This is so dependent on your route, weather, terrain that it is hard for me to give a generic answer. On trails that are close to the city and havelot of traffic, I will pack water, some food, phone, an extra layer or two and a headlamp and that is about it. The risks are lower. On something where I am going solo and there is going to be more technical terrain involved and I don’t have cell coverage, the list gets much longer and I will turn to a running pack that is 15-20 liters. From my experience, I started packing too much, took notes on what I used, didn’t use and started trimming from there. What I also do is stop mid-run and think to myself, “What would happen if I was injured right now in this spot? Do I have what I need to get through the process of either making it back or being able to call for help?”. If the answer is no, make note of what you don’t have and include it next time.
Sawna: I usually pack all the essentials and then some, but they don't fit in running packs! My go to essentials are a wind breaker/rain shell, chapstick, extra snacks, a life straw and my phone!
Kim: There's only one way to find what works for you, trial and error. I can make a lot fit in my UD running vest. I climb 14ers and 13ers all summer long with it. The material is stretchy.
12. Do you have any suggestions on acclimating to running in a higher elevation? I'm moving to Denver on Monday and everyone is saying I'm going struggle a little trying to run or exercise there at first. It would be interesting to hear if they have any suggestions on getting used to that environment change.
Michele: I just moved to Denver in September and my best suggestion for this is to just know that your normal pace is going to feel really hard to maintain here at first. You will almost feel like you are starting over. Don't get discouraged or be too hard on yourself though and know that it will just take a few months before you start to feel normal again.
Kim: Time. It's the only way. Took me 3 months to stop having bloody noses when I moved from New York to Denver. And it takes me even longer when I go up high. Every one is different though. You may acclimate right away. It's partially genetic.
13. How do you prevent severe GI problems for 15mi+ distance?
Stuke: Honestly, I don’t have much of a problem with this but I do always carry Pepto in pill form just in case and I found that works.
Sawna: Hydration and consuming enough calories is key. Mix a little bit of salt in your snacks(I add some pink Himalayan to my dates) if it's hot out. Snack every hour but don't over indulge.
Kim: Let me know if you figure this one out. My stomach sucks.
14. What's your favorite pair of shorts/tights?
Ellie: It's science, the shorter the inseam, the faster you run. So duh... my shortest shorts.
Benjamin: Easy answer. The North Face Better Than Naked 5” Split Short. Great storage and extremely comfortable and light.
Kim: I love my pins to kill leggings and under armor shorts.
15. Do you fuel differently for an ultra/trail than you do for say a half/full road marathon? What are some of your go to "fuel" snacks.
Stuke: When I did road running of that distance I usually had a gel or two stashed in my shorts and that was it. When running ultra distances on the trails, I still use gels but supplement that with real food. Bean burritos, taquitos, PB&J’s, quesadillas are all food that I have turned to. Also see #9 answer.
Benjamin: The only difference for me is I add in real food for ultra distances. My body needs more than just sugars or carbs to be out there for a long time.
Sawna: Definitely different fuel methods. During a marathon I run at a hard effort the entire time, maybe consuming a gel or two(fast energy fueling). During a ultra/trail you are pacing yourself to go farther and a less intense effort. I strive to stick to A Whole Foods energy source to get me energized and truly enjoy the hours spent on the trails.
Kim: I try to eat real food the more miles I tack on. I am still figuring out my nutrition but salted potatoes and rice and avocado wraps are awesome.
16. Do you have any favorite mental methods / team methods to push past walls/fatigue?
Michele: Smile through the pain. Seriously. If you start to feel a low or start hurting, and you smile or laugh, it will help change your mental attitude. And EAT! More often then not, if you are hitting a wall or fatigue it's because you need food and/or water! It's really easy to forget about fueling when you're running but it's necessary to keep yourself moving.
Benjamin: Mine is easy. In a race, find someone around you that is in the same boat and suffer together. The miles to the next aid station (and usually after that aid station you will feel better because you will eat and drink a lot) will go fast as the two or more of you talk about your feelings and how you think you got there.
Kim: I repeat to myself, "eventually it has to end" and "the only way through is through." Suffering is always temporary.
17. What's your favorite app to use to track your runs and why?
Stuke: Strava without a doubt. I’m not competitive but I enjoy the interface the most and it’s easy to see what others are up to and draw inspiration from them. It’s like the Facebook of running. Also you can get the basic app for free on your phone or use a GPS watch if you have one.
Benjamin: My suunto ambit peak is all I need
Sawna: I use the Strava app. It keeps me accountable for my runs and even reminds me of accomplishments made. It collects all runners/cyclist together and makes your activity a more social event.
Kim: Strava. It is free and works without service.
18. What's one item you cannot live without for your runs?
Stuke: Shoes and don’t forget your car keys. ;)
Benjamin: I can’t live without my trekking poles. For the longest time I didn’t understand the need for them until I tried them. They helped my climbing tremendously.
Kim: My legs.
Sawna: Chapstick! No matter the weather, my lips get dry, I will run back if I have forgotten it! Also a camera... to take photos of my ultra happy trail running pup Juniper!
19. How do Kim and Ellie look like they're having so much fun on their runs?
Ellie: I guess I'm obligated to answer this. Well. I think the more you awkwardly dance during a run, the more fun you'll have. That's a direct correlation. And try not to take yourself seriously. Neither of us run to be fast, or to train, or to beat Strava stats. We just love to be outside. Also, it's fun to suffer, guys!!
Kim: We are ( :
20. What is your mental state? What are you thinking? Are you thinking? How and where do you direct your thoughts?
Stuke: I struggled a bit early on, especially road running in over thinking things. The mental training was far more challenging than the physical training. The key is to just be. Don’t think about the destination, each step is the destination. Be completely engaged in the present moment. Let everything flow to you. It’s a state of being that can be hard to explain so I recommend a book, “Running with the Mind of Meditation” by Sakyong Mipham to getyou on your way. A passage from that book explains it well:
“On a crisp, fresh morning in the Scottish Highlands, I had planned a ten-mile run. Both Jon Pratt and I were training a lot that winter, and we were both in good shape. Our run had a delightful and magical quality. My mind was very clear, and I remained completely present, noticing every rock on the trail and even the dew glistening on the pine needles. Every gust of wind invigorated and refreshed me. Even the clear echoes of our feet hitting the trail brought me back to the moment. As we inhaled and exhaled, the vapors created a mist. I felt connected to the sky and the earth.”
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Choose Mountains Ambassador: Washington
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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 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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am not much of a crier, but a few tears may have been shed.
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.