How to Recover from a DNF: Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster

By Michele Dillon, Choose Mountains Ambassador

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

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

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

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

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

Wear Sweatpants

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

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

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

Talk About It

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

Be Proud of Your Effort

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

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

Don't Let It Stop You

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

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

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

Fuel Your Fire

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

This Doesn’t Define You

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

Allow Yourself to Move On

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

 


CONTRIBUTOR:

AMBASSADOR MICHELE DILLON

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Follow her adventures on Instagram or Facebook

The Route to GDR: A Series of Fortunate Events

The Georgia Death Race is a 68-74 mile point to point trail run deep in the humidity filled North Georgia Mountains with around 14,000 feet of vertical gain, and a race that many have declared feels like finishing a 100 miler. Follow along Ambassador Michele Dillon's journey of her training leading up to the race happening March 31st.

Read More

Clare Gallagher: Igniting the Fire

By Michele Dillon

Picture Credit: Thomas Woodson

Picture Credit: Thomas Woodson

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credit: Ben Duke

Picture Credit: Ben Duke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credit: Mike Thurk

Picture Credit: Mike Thurk

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

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

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

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

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CONTRIBUTER:

Michele Dillon

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Choose Mountains Ambassador - Colorado 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Starting off at Snoqualmie Pass

Starting off at Snoqualmie Pass

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

 

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

Crossing the boundary into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

Crossing the boundary into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness

 

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

 

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

 

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

Kendall Katwalk with Chikamin Ridge in the background

Kendall Katwalk with Chikamin Ridge in the background

 

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

The PCT weaves its way around Joe Lake

The PCT weaves its way around Joe Lake

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

The view south from below Chikamin Ridge

The view south from below Chikamin Ridge

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

Park Lakes from Chikamin Pass

Park Lakes from Chikamin Pass


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

The Alpine Lakes Wilderness in all its glory

The Alpine Lakes Wilderness in all its glory

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Looking back south from Escondido Ridge.

Looking back south from Escondido Ridge.

Views from Escondido Ridge

Views from Escondido Ridge

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

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

The last of the sun on day 1

The last of the sun on day 1

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

 

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

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

Cathedral Rock towers over Deep Lake

Cathedral Rock towers over Deep Lake

Looking down at Deep Lake and the waterfalls that feed it

Looking down at Deep Lake and the waterfalls that feed it

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Looking back at the tricky ford

Looking back at the tricky ford

 

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

Climbing toward Pieper Pass

Climbing toward Pieper Pass


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

Glacier Lake and the PCT below

Glacier Lake and the PCT below


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

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

 

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

Trap Lake below with Chiwaukum Range in the distance

Trap Lake below with Chiwaukum Range in the distance

The PCT stretched out before me

The PCT stretched out before me


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

Saying goodbye to the sun on day 2

Saying goodbye to the sun on day 2

 

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

 

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

 

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

Finished. 75 miles in 36 hours.

Finished. 75 miles in 36 hours.

 

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

 

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


CONtributer:

Stuke Sowle

Choose Mountains Ambassador: Washington

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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.