Moab 240 (September 9-11, 2020)

The Moab 240 is a 240 mile endurance event (it’s not a race, it’s a “lifetime achievement”) near Moab, UT. I’d put myself on the waitlist after COVD-19 canceled my summer plans because a friend was running it, another friend was planning on crewing them, and so I figured if I got in, it’d be one big party of sore feet, suburn, and sleep deprivation. Also, this would be a chance to revisit the landscapes which had so wonderfully affected me on the Hayduke Route. COVID-19, of course, meant that all the international runners couldn’t come so I got off the waitlist in a hurry despite being something like 46th.

My race plan was copied from another friend‘s FKT attempt for the Washington section of the PCT. 20hrs of walking at 3mph followed by 4hrs of sleeping. Repeat for about 4 days and you’re done, probably somewhere in the middle of the pack. Things went… differently.

Getting to the Start

Arguably, most of my training is documented on this blog. Lots of long over-night hikes. After the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee in May I didn’t run until mid September except for a 100km course. The run in September was a single 24mi loop reactivated a recurring sacral issue. The physical therapist I saw for the sacral issue recommended focusing on a the run-walk strategy but said if it came up, I was clear to just push through. I didn’t plan on pushing through days of pain on every other step so I figured I’d have more of a walk-walk strategy.

The week before the race, I’d taken leave from work and planned to road trip to Moab with an itinerary left to spontaneity. In practice, this meant that other than a quick stop to see some friends, the most interesting thing I did was “heat training” in a park in Boise (let’s be diplomatic and say this reinforced the intention to use a walk-walk plan) and discover that Salt Lake City Brewing has a nice oatmeal stout (which I didn’t get to enjoy because my parking expired). Between late night processing of a romantic disappointment and learning to sleep in the back of Elliot, my 2003 Ford Escape, I was insufficiently rested going into an event known for sleep deprivation.

All in all, not a training/prep strategy I recommend anyone copy.

Check-In (Thursday, October 8, 1-2pm)

The race starts in the Moab RV Park but since there’s only parking for RVs, you have to park across the highway in Lions Park. Walking over, I met Cynthia, an older woman who’s been doing endurance runs since the 90s. Her greatest concern was figuring out how to use the GPS on her phone. This was very comforting.

I passed the health check, got my bib, and went back to the car for my drop bags. Five drop bags just zip-locks with a change of socks and the elevation profile for the next section. The other drop bag was the sleep station drop bag, a duffel with tent, sleeping bag rated to 12F (it can get cold in the desert), oversized shoes if my feet swelled, extra clothes, a warmer fleece for the mountains, and a individual battery packs for my headlamp, watch, and phone. This duffel would be transported to the four aid stations designated for sleeping and so I packed things in it which I might want but wasn’t sure when I might want them.

Leaving the drop bags on the tarps and walking away felt very committing. Especially because my sleep station drop bag had bulged over the size limits. Would my most important gear be there when I needed it?

Pre-Start (Friday, October 9, 5am)

My alarm woke me up in the back of my car. I was parked in the lot of a hotel where I’d paid to leave my car during the race. I suppose you’re supposed to sleep in the hotel, not your car, but they didn’t have any vacancy. I’d had to tie a shirt over my eyes to block out the lights placed at close intervals around the lot. I had slept some which is about as much as ever happens before a race.

I changed into the clothes I was expecting to wear for the next four days: the only long-sleeved athletic shirt I’d owned for more than a week; supportive, breathable briefs whose discovery changed my running/hiking experience; loose running shorts I’d found at a thrift store after all the running shorts at the local running shop turned out to be restrictive (ie I don’t have a scrawny butt or spindly legs); and a bright orange cap with a drape which I’d ordered at the last minute because it was the only optino which would arrive in time. I double-checked every item in my vest. Forget something now and you might not discover it missing until you you needed it to, say, find you way at night in the cold. I hid my wallet in the car, taking ID, a credit card, and some cash in case I DNF’d and the way back to my car wasn’t simple. On normal runs, if I even bring these, they go in the upper of two zippered pockets in the middle of my vest which has a key holder. Since I put other things in that pocket as well, I opted to put my valuables in the lower of the pockets and never open it until the end of the race. I wrote myself a note on my phone about where my car was parked.

All runners probably double-check their gear before giving themselves to the starting line. This was different. Without support, I had to be prepared to take care of myself after the finish, even if I were in a compromised physical and mental state. Finally, I locked my car and walked a mile along the highway to the start.

Start (mi 0) to Hidden Valley (mi 9.3)

There was a crowd around the starting area. People stood as far apart as their curiosity would let them. I made my way to over to a table where a volunteer took my bib number (#136) and wrapped the velcro straps of a tracking device around the shoulder strap of my vest. The volunteer’s motions were firm like a nurse who knows that the easiest way to get things done is not to worry about being too gentle. “Good luck” the volunteer said confidently, patted me on the shoulder, and called “Next”.

The start was broken into five waves with the slowest runners, by self-reported finish time, going first. Maybe if the fastest runners start last, we’d all finish at the same time? I was in the third wave having listed an expected run of 96hrs. A man in a puffy sang the national anthem. No one had their hand over their heart. Then the singer took his puffy and scurried to join the first wave. The race director would call through her megaphone for each wave to start lining up and remind everyone to get their trackers. Inevitably, there would be a last minute scramble as someone realized they hadn’t gotten theirs. In my wave, it was Cynthia. She made it back just before time was called and we broke across the start line at a very slow jog.

The first few miles were paved and I tried to have both feet on the ground at some point during each stride as a way of keeping myself from going out too fast. Eventually, I fell in with Cynthia and we traded running stories until about where the pavement turned to trail. Older women tend not to go out too fast like us excitable young men so she made for good company and good pacing.

Cynthia (in blue) as we parted ways. I’d see her again coming in to Base Camp just as I was leaving.

From the pavement of Moab, the route took a trail which contoured well below a mesa, rising slightly but mostly rolling easily. I got stuck at the back of a line which felt like it was going at a walk but pausing whenever it encountered a runner from an earlier group. The runner in front of me was from Bellingham. I would come to know runners by their home towns since it was usually the first piece of personal info you’d trade. Bellingham had a volunteered at several 200mi races and gave me some tips. We agreed that, being from western Washington, the heat and dryness would be a challenge. After a while, two runners got up the courage to pass the whole line, Bellingham jumped in behind them and so I did as well. From there he and the other two slowly pulled away but it was nice to establish my own rhythm.

A crowded early trail made it hard to establish my own rhythm for a few miles.

Arriving at the Hidden Valley aid station, I realized that I had no plan. I tried to stuff some food in my face while also grabbing things for later. I wasn’t sure what to take. The slight sucking feeling in my stomach told me I hadn’t taken enough food from the start. I’d thought that the bar I’d had for breakfast would hold me over and was now afraid of being calorie deficient. The physical therapist specializing in endurance athletics who I’d consulted about my sacral issue had recommended using sports drink for hydration and carrying water just to wash the taste out. I took two liters of sports drink and no water.

I needed to keep moving but felt like I’d forgotten something. On my way out of the aid station, a medical volunteer asked if I wanted sunscreen. Of course. They gave me a paper towel to hold over my eyes and sprayed my face and neck from an aerosol can. I heard shouts of “runner comming” signalling that the pack I’d just left was here. I didn’t want to get caught up in it again so I turned to go, hoping that nothing was amiss.

Hidden Valley (mi 9.3) to Amasa Back (mi 17.8)

Immediately, there was a set of tight switchbacks which climbed what looked like a nearly vertical crack to the top of a mesa. Near the top, I looked down and saw a someone in a half-brim sun hat, white sun protective sleeves, and something with La Sportiva in large lettering. They were actually running up the rocky trail without poles. This person was either a fool or in it to win it.

The climb out of Hidden Valley. The winner ran up with no poles.

The trail broke onto the flat top of the mesa and all of a sudden I could run again. It was incredible to be among the large rock formations and so I compromised by trying to take pictures as I ran. Runners snaked along the path ahead of me like ants or water droplets following a course. The runner in a sun hat caught up and saluted me with some pleasantry. I replied with a pleasantry but then heard the crunching of footsteps off the path. He’d been too polite to say, “runner back” or “on your left” as traditionally indicate a request to pass. He was moving with incredible consistency and power, not a fluid, adaptive stride and I hung on for a mile or so since it was convenient to pass people as a unit so they only had to step off once.

Flat running after the steep climb out of Hidden Valley.

The single track crossed some slickrock (sandstone) and turned into a 4×4 track and began to roll slightly. I’d caught back up to Bellingham but the runner in the sun hat with the mechanically consistent gait pulled away never to be seen again. My understanding is that he won the race.

The 4×4 track required you to keep an eye out for the big picture as it would cross rock faces which would push you onto what might seem to be the trail, only for you to dead end in a thicket of bushes. This happened twice and once it was convenient to have GPS to confirm the start of a steep descent off the mesa. I called back two other runners at this juncture who’d continued up a rise. The descent took us took Kane Creek Road and eventually the Amasa Back aid station. I ran those final miles with a fellow from Charlestown who I thought of as “Chucktown”. We traded training stories and marveled at how our prep had been in such different environments and prepared us so differently. He’d only gotten off the wait list a few weeks before. He seemed like a strong runner and said he wished he’d had a chance to start with the elites just to see how long he could hang with them.

When the trail is hard to follow, look for other runners who may be stopped to take pictures and so act as cairns.

I was worried about having overused my quads on the climb and descent in this section but both were steep enough that there wasn’t much for it. Going slower would have still required large, powerful steps and stopping frequently to rest is really the only thing you don’t want to do in an event like this. Also there was a subtle feeling in my butt an inch to the right of the bottom of my tailbone. This was my worst fear – the sacral issue. In the past, if it had started, it would eventually build up and being sendind a pulse of pain on every right footfall until the end of the event. Walking sometimes enabled me to continue it, but I didn’t want to slow walk the next 220 miles. I kept running anyways.

My first drop bag was at Amasa Back. I changed socks and studied the elevation profile for the next leg. There was a meandering climb and eventually a big drop but if you looked at the vertical scale, it wasn’t too much. More to the point was that the day was beginning to warm. I still didn’t have a process for the aid stations and so ate randomly and stuffed my vest full of whatever seemed good at the moment, trying to make sure there was a something with salt for hyponatremea since the PT had cautioned me about that.

Amasa Back (mi 17.8) to Base Camp (mi 32.8)

Out of Amasa Back, I decided to jog-walk as much as I could. The course was on a ledge above the Colorado river and slightly uphill but with many brief runnable sections. The sacral issue was becoming noticeable but didn’t require management yet so I decided to put off dealing with it for as long as I could. I passed a few people who quickly caught up at ambiguous points where I stopped to determine where the route went. It was funny calling back to them, “I can’t see trail but I’m trying this way, let me know if you do something else”. They’d usually confirm. This cooperation was a wonderful form of sportsmanship and I love when it happens during endurance events. These temporary alliances can be for seconds or hours, and make for a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst ostensible competitors.

The trail follows the Colorado, slowly climbing onto the top of the cliffs on the left.

At one point, a runner ahead appeared lost as the trail worked it’s way up a shelf. I found a paint mark denoting a hard u-turn and so called him back. Part way back, he called me back, indicating that my way was about to cliff out. By then, the two runners behind us had caught up. We followed the GPS track past some flagging attached to the only bush nearby, slightly up and to our left. The GPS tack then pulled it’s own U-turn at an overlook and we backtracked to the flagging where we realized it indicated we should climb some rocks. Apparently however had recorded the course had gotten lost here as well.

Running along shelves.

There was a short, steep climb, some rolling, then a long, slightly downhill track wide enough to be jeep road across mixed rock and dirt. The sun was unrelenting and there was no wind or shade. The sports drink started tasting less palatable and I had no desire to eat. I dropped to a walk, even on the most runnable sections and the runner in front of me began to pull away slowly. There were many mountain bikers along this section and I couldn’t tell if they were out for fun or volunteers monitoring the runners for safety.

Eventually, we came to very steep set of tight switchbacks on large, loose rocks called Jacob’s Ladder. There was a photographer at the top who I’m sure captured excellent pictures of the dramatic view of the canyons beyond as runners take large, drop steps over the edge. I was worried about breaking a pole and so went slow. Everyone I’d been with pulled away except for one fellow we’d recently overtaken who was walking slowly. At one turn, there was a sliver of shade and so I stopped to transfer sports drink from the bottle in my pack to the soft flasks I carried up front. While doing this, several runners passed. I’d later recognize most of these runners later in the run except for a black man who I understand took second.

Jacob’s Ladder. That shade was the first I’d seen in a long time. I’m curious what the pipeline contains.

After the descent, there was a dirt road which ran for miles (maybe 8-9?) and was almost flat. My stomach was hard and felt on the edge of being upset. Whenever it calmed down for a moment, I took a sip of disgusting sports drink, or popped a candy or gel in my mouth. I couldn’t run but was walking well at a little over 4mph. While I knew that walking such a runnable section was to leave a huge opportunity on the table, the downside was that if I got sick or dehydrated, the recovery would consume much more time than the few minutes per mile I’d gain by running. At these distances, running is typically 10-12min/mi (6-5mph), sometimes more. Walking at 14-15min/mi in exchange for not blowing up is an excellent trade. Four runners passed me – three quickly, one at a slow run-walk. I let them all go.

The road lead around a ridge which contains Hurrah Pass. To keep my mind off my situation, I watched for anything I might recognize from having traveled over it on the Hayduke Route. I knew the next aid station was a resupply I might have used on that trip but hadn’t seen when I’d walked through. Now, when I finally did see it, slightly sooner than I’d expected from the mileage count on my GPS watch, I was incredibly relieved. A runner in orange passed me and exclaimed a single desperate word, “water”.

Shortly before Base Camp. The runner ahead summed up both our desires in a single word as he passed, “water”.

Base Camp (mi 32.8) to Breaking Bad (mi 57.3)

The Base Camp aid station was a mess of wilted runners. I approached a volunteer and asked for water. He handed me a cup. I drained it and handed it back. This repeated several times. Then I poured a cup over my head. Then I crashed in the last empty, shaded chair and joined in the ongoing chorus of requests for ginger ale with ice which I kept pronouncing “ginger aid”. No one wanted to eat but someone ordered a hot dog and everyone else realized they too should probably consume something besides sugar. I took the left over ice from my ginger ale and put it under my cap. It gave me a brain freeze and another runner said to shift it around to the back of the hat which helped. Eventually, several runners decided that the course wasn’t going to run itself and left. There was a runner from Delaware who looked at the elevation we’d gained so far, about 3500ft, and remarked how much it was. For comparison, that’s a typical day hike in the Cascades. The flip side was that he seemed to be handling the heat better than most.

When I heard someone shout “here comes the bubble” or something like that, I decided to try and skip out ahead of them. The next section was 24 miles with a water cache 4 miles in. I put some more more ice under my cap and left. I felt grand and ran most of the way to the water cache, passing a lot of runners and walkers, a number of whom and recently passed me. I walked for a bit with Bellingham and we griped about how the heat was going to ruin us Western Washingtonians. He was walking to avoid overheating. Later there was an Italian who lived in Georgia but told me that the runner out front was an Italian from Italy. He enjoyed making grand statements about an Italian without clarifying which Italian he meant. Another fellow was from Peru but had lived in the states for ten years. A man who had caught up to me when I’d been transferring sports drink at Jacob’s Ladder but declined to pass was resting in meager shade of a scrawny tree by the water cache. He coached volleyball at BYU and was nice enough to point out which container was the coolest. I reciprocated by offering to pour some water over his head. The Peruvian accepted this cooling shower when he arrived but Bellingham didn’t bother with it. A runner showed up wearing a puffy vest and complaining about trouble breathing. I encouraged him to stay until he could breathe as the next 20 miles would be difficult to get vehicle access for a rescue if something went wrong. The rest of us left the Lockhart Water Cache together at a walk but drifted apart on the brief climb up to to the rim along which the Lockhart Basin Road contours.

The rim above the Colorado between Base Camp and Lockhart Basin Water Cache.

The ice in my hat wasn’t quite melted when I reached the rim and so I began a run-walk where it didn’t feel strenuous to push things. I caught up to the fellow who I’d had to let go after catching in the previous section. BYU said this guy was Wes and had bib #1 but that he hadn’t been looking good. I hadn’t seen the bib but it was nice to know him by something other than “the guy in blue who I did call back with”. He wasn’t looking good but said that he’d thrown up just after Base Camp aid station and was slowly feeling better. I asked about food and water and he had some so I let him be.

The next two fellows I passed, one being Delaware, were sitting down having a snack break which they joked was a new aid station. I’d passed Delaware previously while he was stopped to snack only to have him pass me back when I was reduced to a walk on the runnable section into Base Camp. I figured something similar would happen here. It was now late in the heat of the day and ice in my hat had melted but the mesa above the jeep track cast enough of a shadow that I could jog when I felt like it without overheating. There was a bike packer pushing his bike across the broken but frequently runnable terrain. It was very strange passing a cyclist. Usually the cyclist passes you.

Lockhart Basin Road takes a sharp turn to the south and at this moment the views which had been constrained by the Colorado River basin open up and you see multiple canyon and mesa systems. I’d experienced this sudden visual expansion on the Hayduke which shares this portion of the route, but it was nice to see it without sheets of rain blowing in and obscuring the distant landscape.

The view suddenly changes as you turn south on Lockhart Basin Road

Shortly, I passed the runner in orange who’d cried, “water” as we approached Base Camp. He was repairing the wrist strap on a running pole with a zip tie and said he was doing well on water. For a time after that I didn’t see anyone but enjoyed trying to match the meandering turns and dramatic mesa walls against my memory from the Hayduke. I never was able to remember quite where the Hayduke makes a sudden turn off into one of the imposing drainages. There were also fewer cattle trails than I remembered.

One of the last people I saw running in this running event.

Then came a several mile stretch where I passed a number of runners, mostly because they were spending more time walking than running. Notable was Witt who was sitting on a rock massaging his legs which he said were cramping every two miles. Ihad stopped to transfer water into my front bottles and we got to talking. He’d hiked the Washington section of the PCT the year before me and mentioned having hiked the AZT as well. I enjoyed meeting another thru-hiker in a race which had involved a lot more hiking than running. The two runners behind us caught up and we had a quick discussion about how much mileage was remaining. The others thought we were about five or six miles from the next aid station, having forgotten than the 20 miles listed for this section were from the water cache, not the previous aid station. In fact, there were 10 miles left. I was feeling good forced Witt to take a half liter of sports drink since the liter he had seemed low for 10 miles of desert walking. There was a little less than two hours of daylight left and I took off at a jog, hoping to make Breaking Bad without needing a headlamp.

Having given away any extra liquids, I now passed several runners who were exclusively walking because they were out or low on water. The worst off was Chucktown who was not moving quickly and whose left foot seemed to be turning inwards in a manner I associate with exhaustion. He had an ounce or two of water and six or seven miles. He’d drunk the 80oz of water in his bladder without knowing it because the bladder was in his backpack where he couldn’t see. I offered a sip of sports drink which he took as did the next runner, from Port Orchard who I remembered because earlier in the race, he’d explained the Washingtonian runner’s difficulty here: we’re used to going on two hour runs without drinking anything because it’s cool and wet and we drink through our skin. There was a runner from the group which had passed me on Jacob’s Ladder who was walking because his heart rate was over 150. Another, Tory, was from San Diego he could handle the heat, but walking since his water was in a bladder and he wasn’t quite sure how much was left. Seemed like a theme. Lastly, there were two runners who were actually running about as much as they were walking. They’d seemed to be traveling together but as I got closer, one dressed all in white pulled away and sped up as I closed on him. We wound up run-walking the last few miles together. His name was Zach White which I enjoyed a great deal because it matched his white spandex costume and rhymed with “runs through the night” which is what he was about to do.

When we rounded a turn and came on a new valley at dusk, Zach offered to take a picture.

Zach and I had slightly different expectations for where the next aid station was but we were both short. After thinking “just around the next turn” a few times, we came across a sign which said the aid station was in one mile. As Zach noted, this was the first mile marker we’d seen on the course. Thinking about the hot and thirsty runners behind us, it was a really good idea to offer a little encouragement at the end of a long section.

Sun is going down. Where is Breaking Bad aid station?

When we finally spotted the Breaking Bad aid station which appeared as a few lights just off the road on a ridge below us, Zach decided to run it in. I didn’t feel like making the effort but excitement got the best of me and I jogged after him, almost catching up where he’d stopped off to pee (also with excitement?).

At the Breaking Bad aid station, I sat down hard in a camp chair near the food and stayed there. Any attempt to move brought a volunteer instantly. Water, ginger ale & ice, a sandwich, broth, soup, etc… were all mine at the mere suggestion. It had been a long section and I wanted to reset, so I wasn’t rushed. One of the volunteers told us that we were 3 and 4, and that 1 and 2 were running together about 4mi ahead at 4mph. We were both shocked. The volunteer described the next section as all on road and it sounded runnable. At a little more than a half marathon distance and at marathon pace, I’d have been able to catch them if I’d left immediately. Of course, this was a 240 mile race so I wasn’t going to do that. Zach was a much more experienced runner and I was here to have fun so I figured I’d ride Zach’s coat tails for as long as I could keep up and the company was good.

Me & Zach about to set off from Breaking Bad.

Some other runners started filtering in. This was really good to see. I’d expressed concern to the aid station captain about the state of many runners and almost got emotional when I said they might need to send a vehicle up the road. I saw this whole thing as a “we’re all in this together” event where people should take care of each other like you might on a long distance hike. Of course, there’s the “run your own run” culture and the price of entry buys you the support of the race company so you don’t have to support yourself, but part of me wanted to load up a 30L pack with water and go back the way I’d come making sure that no one was dehydrated. Instead, other runners started arriving and that was the impetus I needed get back on my feet and keep moving. There were over 180 miles to go.

Breaking Bad (mi 57.3) to Indian Creek (72.3)

I’d been expecting Zach to leave Breaking Bad before me, but we wound up leaving at the same time and choosing to run the next section together. There was a water cache about half way, making it unnecessary to carry more than than a liter in my front bottles given the relative cool of the warm night. The section was all dirt road so movement was easy and navigation was trivial. We chatted about running and adventuring. I was a faster walker, but Zach’s run-walk was stronger. Two or three times he’d stop to stretch and then catch up. When we stopped for water at the cache, we were tickled to see a bag of sandwiches left behind, presumably by one of the elite runners because they didn’t want to carry the weight.

The Indian Creek aid station was at the back of a camping area. Every site had lights and people were milling about. It was a little hard to figure out where to go, but suddenly someone recognized Zach and told him to follow them. He had crew and his pacer for the next section guided us in. At that point, he was surrounded by crew and the tentative plans we’d made to continue together seemed unlikely, so I injected myself into the discussion just enough to say that I’d be by the fire pit he if wanted to leave together, then planted myself in a chair. First thing was to get my sleep station bag and plug in my watch (primary navigation), cell phone (comprehensive navigation), and headlamp. Forget this and things might go very wrong at a very inopportune moment (ex: my headlamp shuts of in an instant when it runs out of battery instead of gradually going dim). It felt like a line from the book Farmer Boy I remembered where Pa teaches Alonzo that a good farmer takes care of his horses before himself. I ordered two hamburgers since I hadn’t had any real food in a while and I’d seen someone eat hamburger patties in a Barkley Marathons documentary. While I was resetting my vest (loading it up with carryable food and water as well as rearranging any gear), the runner I’d passed when he was walking due to elevated heart rate came in. He was from Divide, CO so I thought of him as Divide. He was looking strong, talking well, declined food but appeared to have his own, and planned on continuing without sleep. I overheard he had a military background and asked if he’d had sleep deprivation training and recall him acknowledging it.

At this point a half hour had probably passed and there was a clear decision to make. How long to sleep? My race plan dictated four hours. Yet, somehow, I was tied for third in a prestigious race and that had not part of the race plan. Being a recreational runner who usually finishes around the 30th percentile of most well attended races I’ve run, this was extremely unexpected. I wanted to respect the opportunity in front of me and sleeping for four hours seemed disrespectful to the moment, like discarding a gift in the giver’s presence. Not sleeping at all seemed hubristic, like I’d be putting on airs of being an elite athlete with war stories of crazy hallucinations. Typically I don’t function well after 10am when even slightly short on sleep from the night before. I settled on a 45min rest since the runner’s manual and event’s medical coordinator had recommended that as an amount which would significantly ameliorate the effects of sleep deprivation. I asked a volunteer to wake me and got into my clean, soft, enveloping sleeping bag.

Indian Creek (mi 72.3) to The Island (mi 87.1)

I don’t think I completely passed out as I woke easily when a volunteer touched my sleeping bag and said it had been 45 minutes. Still, my eyes didn’t feel dry anymore and my legs felt fresh, if not strong. In a few minutes, I checked out and learned that I was the 10th to do so.

The section started with a mild downhill on a dirt road and I jogged for a while. I passed two racers walking and talking. We traded encouragements but I wanted to get while the getting was good. The route turns onto a paved two-lane road and I kept up the jog for a while before falling back to a walk. This was a racing walk as fast as 13:36min/mi according to my watch, but the change of form was made the effort much lower. It was strange to have reached the point where I was walking the downhills, especially well graded ones which almost push you into a jog, but it was a long race and I didn’t really want to feel like I was using reserves or getting tired. At the starting line, a volunteer had yelled advice to the 6:15am wave to, “never go hard” or “never try” or something like that. Seemed like good advice.

The route turned off the paved road onto small but well kept meandering dirt roads. This meandering and feeling each aspect of my gait kept me engaged for what was probably hours. Eventually, I was walking up a wash which still had a little water in it, dodging around to find the driest way forward. Ultimately no water got in my shoes which I was glad of since it seemed like wet feet would be one of those small discomforts which might cause much larger issues later. After a mild, well graded climb, I was found myself approaching another car camping area, this one smaller than the one at Indian Creek. There were no lights on until, at what seemed like the very back, I found The Island aid station.

My stop at The Island was relatively short, though I sat down long enough to eat and drink real food, reset my vest, and chat with the volunteers. One of them joked that you don’t need a day at the spa to get pampered, you can run an ultra where the aid station volunteers wait on you like servants. I also saw Zach’s pacer and asked after him. Apparently he was napping and I said to say hi for me. I suppose I was a little miffed that he’d left me for his crew at Indian Creek without a proper goodbye, but you run your own run and maybe he’d come looking for me when I was sleeping. I’ll never know, but it felt like my tiny revenge to now depart while he was sleeping, even if I expected him to pass me shortly. By then, all would be forgiven.

The Island(mi 87.1) to Bridger Jack (mi 102.6)

The night had been warm but for a few minutes just out of The Island, it seemed cold enough that I stopped to layer up. A few minutes later, it was warm again and I stopped to delayer. The trail rolled and was littered with rocks but I’d given myself the rest of the night off from running which made foot placement much easier. An hour or so before down, my head seemed slightly off, so I took a nap in a dry creek bed, feet uphill, timer for 15 minutes but got up after 10. It’s hard to describe exactly the state where I decided it was worth the dirt nap, but the logic boiled down to, “I’m here to have fun not endure hours of zombie-like soul-sucking stumbling so let’s just nip whatever this is in the bud”.

Early morning light running the rim between The Island and Bridger Jack.

The trail’s rolling began to flatten out making it more runnable. About the time there was enough light in the sky to see colors again, I looked back and saw about four headlamps bouncing along in the mile or so behind me. We were running along a rim and so it there wasn’t much to hide the competition. Having checked out as 10th at Indian Creek, I figured those headlamps were more experienced runners who’d be overtaking me at the next aid station if not before. I felt like making them work for it and so ran a little more than I might, but never to the point where my legs were tired or I was breathing hard.

At some point shortly before the sun crept over the mesa hiding me in it’s shade, a motor bike came came down the trail towards me. The rider stopped and took his helmet off. I asked what he wanted, perhaps a bit tartly. “You’re in fourth” he said. I forget how I responded verbally, but immediately translated that to “the fourth person I’ve seen” and since the leaders were probably far ahead, that meant I was at least 6th.

The line of light is coming bringing warmth and discomfort.

The Bridger Jack aid station was a welcome sight. The sun had recently crested the mesa and while it was mid-morning, there was little shelter from its continually brightening heat. I’d just PR’d in the 100mi though I now can’t recall the time (my only other 100 miler had >3x more vert than the ~8000ft my watch showed). I used the luggable loo in a privacy tent which had a broken zipper. I spent some time off my feet, ordered a breakfast burrito to go, and reset my vest. I recognized a volunteer and thanked them for helping at multiple stations. The aid station captain gave me some insights on what was coming: there was a big climb but it was north facing so the sun wouldn’t be so bad. David Goggins had gotten lost in this section the year before. I’d heard about David from Zach who told me the same story. Apparently he was one of the two leaders and I figured that, given that everyone who mentioned him was telling me this same story, he was out for redemption. Someone with that kind of motivation might be put up quite a fight and I felt a little sorry for whoever might be competing with him for first. I was certainly glad not to feel the pressure to do anything but run my own run.

Just as I was about to leave, having put ice under my cap, when someone called “runner coming”. It was Chucktown! I yelled at him something like, “how are YOU here?”. Of all people to overtake me, I was not expecting a fellow I’d last seen walking seven miles in deteriorating condition with two ounces of water. He looked gloriously happy and said he’d spent and hour and a half recovering at Breaking Bad. I figured I’d be seeing him again soon and felt glad to have gotten to witness part of what seemed like a huge come-back story in the making.

Bridger Jack (mi 102.6) to Shay Mountain (mi 121.6)

Out of Bridger Jack, a road with a hard surfaced (was it paved? I can’t remember) ran downhill steeply enough that strides were more about controlling speed than generating it. Eventually, there was a well marked turn which I’d been warned about. It didn’t look like trail, even a dirt bike trail. It just looked like some dirt had slid and cracked and formed a barely passable opportunity to drop down the steep hillside. A trail materialized shortly thereafter but it was immediately clear that, over 100 miles in, the course had finally decided to show it’s teeth.

The next miles were on broken and rolling dirt. Navigation wasn’t hard so much because there were other trails as it was that the trail I was following was sometimes faint enough that game trails, water courses could, or fake trail corridors could make you think you were at an intersection when you weren’t or draw your attention away from the real course at a turn. Flagging was just good enough but I left my watch on its navigation screen because of the constant reassurance checks I was making.

Having descended through a steep treed hillside, the course now drops into an almost trackless wash.

The course then dropped into a wash. In some places, there was a jeep track from some vehicle which had once visited this place. There was no real trail, though footprints sometimes hinted where others had chosen to go. This was just like being off trail on the Hayduke: follow the wash in whatever way seems best to you then turn off when a double track crosses the wash. Flagging was minimal and I became emotionally dependent on constant navigation checks on my watch. If I’d had to stop and pull out my phone every few minutes, it would have cost me a lot of time and I was thankful for the convenience of being able to turn my brain off and just check my wrist to make sure I was on course.

After the wash was a small dirt road which very gently climbed back up the valley in the direction I’d come. Eventually I turned off that onto single track which wound its way through dense brush near a stream, crossing it here and there, and sometimes trying to guide me into it.

There’s a race course in here somewhere.

At one point, my sense for, “this is just a little too ridiculous” triggered and sure enough, in an effort to keep my feet dry, I’d gone past the exit from a creek by about 10ft. It only took a minute to find the proper exit but that was a minute of pushing around a trail-less river bottom trying to find the last big of flagging I’d seen. The exit was was obscured by tall reeds, didn’t appear to be flagged, and I mistook it for a break in the bank at first glance. As I’d mused earlier, in this race, the teeth come out after mile 100.

Found the exit. Flagging it might have helped.

From here, a meandering climb started on a trail which was scratched onto the earth, not cut through it. This meant that instead of contouring in and out to maintain elevation, the trail would bump up and down constantly. It was a poorly maintained trail which was labeled Hop Creek Trail on my GPS and as the day was now warm, it made for an uncomfortable experience. Eventually, I was feeling both the heat (my hat ice was long melted) and mentally fuzzy, so I took a dirt nap in a bit of shade. Despite being surrounded by vegetation, none of it was covered in broad or dense leaves and so the best I could do was hide my face and torso under a medium sized log. There were regular clicks and crashes. Sometimes it was a cow, sometimes it was just the trees. Every time, I assumed it was Chucktown or someone else finally catching up. I hadn’t run a step since the road out of Bridger Jack and found it inexplicable that no one had caught me. After 10 minutes of dirt nap, I continued.

Two challenges were looming in my mind. First was the big climb. The elevation profiles for most of the sections of the race looked scary until you realized that their vertical axis was only a few hundred feet. Not so with this section. Somewhere there was a climb of over a thousand feet in about a mile. After that was a steep descent and a steep climb of slightly shorter elevation change and spread out over a few more miles. Where was that first big climb? I’d noted the offset between my watch and official mileage when leaving Bridger Jack, but it could have changed significantly in the tight spaces on the Hop Creek Trail.

The other concern was water. I’d planned to carry water for the entire section but at the rate I was drinking, I’d be out before the next aid station. If I drank what I wanted, my water bottles would be dry immediately. I had a little left in one front bottle, then 1.5L. I decided that the little bit would have to get me to the big climb, then it was 0.5L for each of the climb, descent, and climb thereafter. I hadn’t noted the mileages of water sources in this section since I hadn’t planned on using them but my map showed a stream a short distance away. Giardia takes two weeks to kick but dehydration causes problems now so I decided to drink from that stream when I got there. If I’d been smart, I’d have planned on soaking in it to reduce body temperature. Ultimately it didn’t matter because the stream was dry. To make matters worse, I missed the obvious exit a few feet away and went for one upstream, only checking my GPS when I realized that an exit would be an obvious place to put flagging and I didn’t see any. So now I was rationing water and off course.

It took a minute or two to spot the obvious and proper exit from the dry stream. The flagging had fallen.

I found my way back to the course, spotted some fallen flagging, and then the proper exit from the stream bed was obvious. From there, the trail continued up a narrow ravine, crossing other dry stream branches. I was trying to look ahead to see which hillside the big climb might take me up. Every time I guessed, the trail turned a completely different direction. Then it crossed open terrain with nothing obviously above it. Finally, my altimeter read about 7000ft, which was the base of the climb and the sharp up out of one particular stream bed kept going up instead of leveling off. Just as the excitement of being allowed to drink my next half liter was hitting me, I realized that I needed to keep rationing it otherwise I might get overly thirsty part way up and start in on the downhill’s water too early. So instead of quenching my thirst, I made water a reward. Every 100 vertical feet would get me another sip. I regularly hike up 1000ft/mi trails back home for day hikes, usually for several continuous miles. Now, this one mile required two sit down breaks. My footsteps were small and slow. I leaned heavily on my poles. I thought the top was at 8000ft but I’d misread the elevation profile and almost despaired when it was obvious that there was more to go. At 8000ft, there was a slight breeze. Somehow the temperature was cooler and I didn’t need another break until the top.

At the top was a notch with a view into the next valley. I wasn’t of the mind to enjoy it, though the view was unique so far in the course: a forested mountainside with a variety of dry greens and browns. The valley drained away to the left and the mountains on the other side had much less vegetation, a strange contrast to their more vegetated counterparts on the near side. I transferred water from my last 1L hard bottle on the back of my pack to the two 500ml front soft bottles. I was slow and clumsy doing this and I didn’t care. I didn’t care if someone passed me now. I didn’t feel tired in my muscles, sleepy, or dull in my mind, but I was tired. Some kind of full system tiredness where no one part seems to be the problem.

But now there was downhill and I knew a secret. While this whole system exhaustion slows my uphill travel to a crawl, it has no effect on my downhill travel. At first I crashed down the steep, loose descent, but after that, I hit a wide, hard-packed, dirt forest road. A clean, smooth running surface. There was an old lady by a truck who gestured at me, pointing. I asked what I could do for her and she asked if I was her grandson. I wasn’t but recognized her grandson’s number as belonging to Bellingham and told her that he’d taken me under his wing near the start and that we’d run together onto Lockhart Basin Road. She said she wouldn’t keep me and I turned to go. What I figured was that if she had been watching the live tracking and come here, perhaps Bellingham was right behind me with Chucktown. It was motivation of a kind, but more so was the the desire to feel strong again. I flew down that road. For the first time in the race, I allowing my legs to push hard, to feel the deep muscle strain which would mean true tiredness but also great power. Normally sub-9 minute miles are nothing to write home about, but when the truck with Bellingham’s grandma passed and she called out, “your keeping a great pace” or something like that, I felt like Hermes.

The final climb was on the same road at the same grade as the descent, about 300ft/mi. It started as the ascent out of ravine with water running down the middle. I had half a liter and the aid station was in three miles so I figured I’d make it without filling up. The grade allowed for a strong walk on relatively straight legs driven from the hamstring and butt which I find to be a faster uphill hiking technique when the terrain allows. Just a mile later, I had to sit down. Full system overload again. I wasn’t sweating profusely or breathing hard. My muscles weren’t tired, my heart wasn’t racing. My belly wasn’t empty. I just needed to sit. A mile later I saw someone. They looked back and spoke a word of encouragement. About a quarter mile from Shay Mountain aid station, volunteers with cow bells and nothing to do had come to look for runners. At the sound of cow bells, I started crying. Cow bells mean you made it. Cow bells mean that everything which just happened is now water under the bridge. Cow bells mean safety, water, food, rest, and an end to striving. “I’ve never run this far. It’s just so good to see people again.” I tried to explain as I stood at the aid station weeping while a medical volunteer asked diagnostic questions and another reset the tracker on my vest for the second half of the race.

Shay Mountain (mi 121.6) to Dry Valley (mi 140.1)

My time at Shay Mountain aid station was slow and inefficient. I had trouble determining clearly what I wanted. I asked for my sleep station bag but forgot to start charging electronics. I ate a little but wasn’t that hungry then decided to take the medical volunteer up on their offer to patch up my feet. I could have done these at the same time. People kept coming up to me and asking if I wanted this or that, sometimes making suggestions like phrased as questions like, “you know what sounds great right now? a hamburger”. Eventually, I asked for a 45min wake-up and curled up in my sleeping bag on a cot in the sleeping tent.

Medical volunteers are the best. At Shay Mountain, one remembered spraying me with sunscreen when they were working the Hidden Valley aid station. Apparently a bright-orange cap is pretty memorable. My mind wandered back to Lockhart Basin Road and I said that the conditions there were disconcerting. The medical volunteer replied that the state of my feet was disconcerting. One blister had almost wrapped itself around almost all sides of a toe. They even explained how the tape job I’d done on myself at Indian Creek had actually caused blisters. There’s something impressive about their desire to serve, unflappable demeanor, and confident professionalism.

Divide, who I’d last seen at Indian Creek, was at Shay Mountain and appeared quite sunburned. We traded a few words but didn’t really engage. He’d had a hard time on the Hop Creek climb as well. He was gone when I was gently roused but the thought that every minute I stayed put me farther behind didn’t push me into a more efficient state of mind. In fact, the thought barely registered. I reset my vest feeling like I didn’t have a clear game plan. How many calories to take? Have I balanced flavors and textures so there will always be something palatable? Did I get sunscreen? No need for ice in the cap, it was late in the day. I started out in the wrong direction but was quickly corrected. Then someone yelled, “DQ” (my trail name – I wasn’t disqualified), and it turned out to be Flyby, a friend of a friend who was supporting Witt, who I’d met earlier. It was a wonderful, if brief, small-world connection. Then I was off, running down a well paved road in the late afternoon and feeling good.

Leaving Shay Mountain. Just another 120mi or so to go.

Shortly after turning off onto a jeep track, I encountered Divide. He was walking on a downhill and being so recently after an aid station, I was a little worried. I joined him for a bit and we got to talking. He’d said his head was in a bad place and I hoped that with a little conversation he’d snap out of it and we’d be able to hike through the night together. It started well with him picking it up to almost 4mph. His real name was Jason and I got to hear about some of his background in the military, a little history of mountain warfare, and how he’d wound up specializing in it. I shared some about hiking the PCT and Hayduke. I asked how he’d met his wife. The conversation went on.

We’d checked out 4th and 5th from Shay Mountain and had similar plans: walk all night, keep the aid station stops brief, stay comfortable and survive until the next sleep station at Road 46. I was hoping to get there around sun-up but he was targeting mid-morning or noon. We geared up for the night together but after a little bit I was regularly pulling ahead and he mentioned something about a nutrition issue and sent me on. In the end, you run your own race.

The route seemed to be a rocky 4×4 road on the edge of a steep hillside which would have had sweeping views of a valley. It was night so I didn’t see anything that wasn’t touched by the weak, ghostly beam of my headlamp. I turn down my headlamp to it’s lowest so that the battery will last the entire night. This has always been sufficient for following trails and has the effect of focusing me on the immediate. With less warning about what’s coming, your attention is on your feet, your stride, your body. This kept me in the moment and my thoughts only strayed as far as the next aid station when the track turned into more of a ridge running road which was better graded. As with all aid stations, the final miles drag out. A few hundred yards out, there was a woman by a truck facing towards the edge of the road. She seemed intent on not noticing me which was unusual because most people are are interested when they see a runner. Only as I was just passing did I register the wet mark by her feet and awkward manner of her stance as though she were using a female urinary device. I’ve been around hiking culture long enough to know women can pee standing up, with or without help depending on the technique, but I’m still not used to seeing it.

At the Dry Valley aid station, I didn’t sit down. The next two sections were about a half marathon each, relatively level, and on roads. I was in good spirits and wanted to keep walking. I reset my vest, downed some broth that the volunteers whipped up in a moment, passed a few jokes, and went on my way just before of a truck made a U-turn by the aid-station, kicking up a bunch of dust.

Dry Valley (mi 140.1) to Wind Whistle (mi 153.7)

Most of this section is a straight shot down a very wide dirt road with such a smooth surface that, after jogging for a bit, I played a game of closing my eyes for 10 seconds and opening them for one second to see if I could get any rest while walking. This backfired as it compounded the lack of stimulation presented by the perfectly straight road in flat country of uniform ground cover. My mind began to try to start turning off by body. Running would have helped but I didn’t have the motivation for it and resigned myself to counting down about 11 miles at 4mph. The monotony began to sap my speed and I put on a friend’s irreverent podcast which I reserve for times when I need to break a mental spiral. It didn’t work. Even with just an hour of walking left, the weight of the minutes I was going to have to be conscious before reaching the next aid station felt impossible. Also, a pole broke.

The GPS route shows you entering Wind Whistle shows some kind of trail looping around the back of the camp area, but the signs on the road directed me in the way I was expecting to leave. Someone met me a few tens of yards from aid station where they’d arranged drop bags on each side of the road, but put mine in the middle. I wanted to keep the stop short but asked for real food to go and to deal with everything else after a 15 minute nap. This wasn’t a sleep station but there were cots and blankets which was nicer than a dirt nap. I wound up only taking a few minutes to let my eyes stop buzzing at which point my head felt clear as well. I asked if they had a bag large enough to send my broken pole back with the drop bags and the aid station captain offered to lend me one of her poles which were of the same make and model as mine. It was an incredibly kind offer, especially as these were expensive poles, but I didn’t want special treatment which might be construed as an unfair advantage. I’d been curious about others’ experiences in the last section, and the answer, that there hadn’t been many people through yet, reminded me that, somehow, I was near the front of the race, probably 4th given that I’d passed Jason. I bid the aid station volunteers adieu and walked back out onto the road.

Wind Whistle (mi 153.7) to Road 46 (mi 167.3)

This section was much like the last. It started with running, a clear head, and good spirits. There was a little more variety, though the road was still incredibly uniform. By the end, my vision was blurring slightly, and lagging, so that when I turned my head it would take a second to register what I was looking at. My pace was a little under 4mph though physically I probably could have walked faster. Sometimes my mind would interpret visual cues incorrectly – the subtle darkness behind undulations of the dirt road registered as the bars of a gate across the road. These weren’t true hallucinations since when I focused my headlamp on them, they would resolve correctly. I might have jogged, despite my preference for walking, but the end was slightly uphill and wouldn’t have been worth the energy expenditure. Finally, an hour or two before dawn, I arrived at Road 46. Immediately, my mind was clear again.

The plan had been to get a much anticipated 90min of sleep. After that, I’d have about 24hrs to finish the last third of the race on my third day racing. I found the thought oddly motivating. I’d asked for my sleep station drop bag and was snacking when a volunteer pointed to the sleep station tent and said, “runner 3 is sleeping”. Despite the obvious opportunity to get into 3rd with a head start, I pretty quickly dismissed the idea of shorting my own sleep schedule on two grounds. First, sneaking past a sleeping runner based on information I’d been given and not noticed myself seemed kinda low, because it felt like I’d gotten an unfair advantage. Second, the runner was Chucktown and except for his encounter with dehydration, he’d consistently been the faster runner. I’d never been in this race to win it and had absolutely no interest in a fight for position. With more than 70 miles remaining, an hour head start wouldn’t keep him off for long. I asked for a wake-up in 90 minutes and after a paniced search for a misplaced battery pack, plugged my electronics in to recharge while I did the same.

Road 46 (mi 167.3) to Pole Canyon (mi 184.9)

Chucktown was still at the aid station when a volunteer quietly roused me. I gave him a fist bump and told him to go get third but that I’d be right behind him. I was surprised he was still here but didn’t expect to see him again and I enjoyed the bravado of pitching myself as a serious challenger. He headed out and I packed up my sleep station drop bag and reset my vest, putting ice in my cap despite it just being daybreak. There were two uphill sections which I hoped to tackle in the daylight and two downhill sections which I hoped to finish in the dark. It was exciting to feel like there was a clear plan to get to the finish. Until now, so much of the race had been guesswork that I hadn’t been willing to emotionally commit to any plan beyond getting to next aid station.

Daybreak on the road again.

I started the section at a slow jog down a highway while eating a breakfast burrito. The course turned on to a broken and tumultuous jeep road. The runner’s manual noted that the trail might be faint but here it was well flagged and eventually the route turned into a clear jeep track with a little grass growing over it. At a low ridge, the track leveled out then ran downhill in a straight line.

It took a moment to realize that this wasn’t actually where you were supposed to cut uphill, you do that 10ft later.

On that long, straight downhill, I saw the a unmistakable fluttering of a runner’s cap’s neck drape. The ground rolled slightly and intermittent bushes blocked my line of sight just enough that the runner came and went, but one way or another, Chucktown was inside a half mile, probably a quarter mile, and I was gaining. The hunt was brief and thrilling. I let the downhill carry me faster, catching glimpses of the fluttering blue cap. Then, I saw Chucktown stop and put his hands on his knees. He looked up when I was about 50 yards away but made no effort to run, instead lifting his hand in a wave. I pulled up and asked how he was doing. We walked together, slowly, and he explained that he’d left Road 46 and almost immediately felt pain on the inside of his left knee, something he’d never felt before. He hobbled back and gotten taped up by a medical volunteer. I remember seeing a light brace on his knee along with the KT tape but the memory isn’t clear. I got his real name, Robert, and the full story of Lockhart Basin Road. He’d gotten a few sips of water from passing runners and eventually made it to Breaking Bad where he’d thrown up the water he’d immediately drunk. At that point, he thought his race might be over because if you need an IV, you DNF. Instead, the medical volunteer hold him there were 23hrs until cutoff and to sip water slowly. After an hour and a half, he’d recovered and continued. A volunteer at Shay Mountain had told him he might have had the fastest split coming over the Hop Creek climb which wrecked Jason and me. He’d relished a sweet day dreamed about catching David Goggins in 2nd but since this was his first 200 mile race, he was really just in it to finish. Now the plan was to walk it in at 3mph, and maybe still finish around 70hrs. I asked if there was a chance for a second comeback story since this first was so good and he shook his head. Eventually, he asked if I had stomach issues or anything, and I took it as his invitation to go. I told him I’d go get a lead in case his knee came back and took off running.

The next several miles were along a flat dirt road. I was elated and ran them, even the subtle inclines which would usually have been my excuse to walk. Somehow, I was in a prestigious race and third place was mine to lose. No one had come in to Road 46 while I’d been there and a volunteer had said that the next runner was hours behind. The delusions of grandeur now running through my head were amazing but I suppose flights of fancy are part of the human experience. Despite being an uphill oriented section, the hills were consistently graded which made for easy climbing. For the first time in the event, the climbs felt long enough to be an easy day hike back home. This might have been a problem given that I was now over two days in, but good feelings buoyed me along even when I started wondering when the next aid station might appear.

Look carefully. There are only two sets of footprints. One in the left wheel track, one in the right. Only two.
Consistently graded uphill.

Arriving at Pole Canyon aid station meant my day was half over (though not the coming night). The volunteers were excited to have something to do. I got my feet retaped, and for the first time ever, lubed. I’d been told that the leukotape used in the previous tape job would tear skin if removed, but it had been sliding and it seemed to come off just fine with under the firm and skilled technique of this medical volunteer. A cook made a plate of eggs, bacon, and guacamole and despite being asked, “are you sure you want all that?” I ate my fill. If a good meal cost me position, so be it. It was an amazing meal, accompanied by an ungodly amount of iced Coca-Cola. Finally, as I was about to reset my vest, someone called, “runner coming”. I was a little dismayed, but it was Chucktown and I was actually glad to see him since it I thought it meant he was feeling better than I’d he’d been. Apparently he wasn’t doing so well since he immediately asked for Ibuprofen. I was about to leave and so gave him my chair since it was the only one in the shade and the day’s allowance of Ibuprofen which I hadn’t touched since the start of the race. The volunteers had someone new to care for and so I thanked them and made to go. On my way out, the aid station captain told me it was 11:45am since he knew that things sometimes blur together for runners. Oh so true.

Pole Canyon (mi 184.9) to Geyser Pass (mi 201.4)

Any time I’d been able to think about the event as a whole, this section was the one about which I’d been most concerned. The trail climbed quickly and sometimes disappeared for short stretches though initially it was well flagged. I moved slowly with a heavy stomach though nearing 10,000ft perhaps the air was thinning too. This wasn’t going to be a run and certainly not a competition. It was just a hike.

Ominous conditions on the initial climb to over 10,000ft.
Still on the initial climb. The trail isn’t incredibly obvious.

The elevation profile I’d printed from the runner’s manual was 6.5 miles long instead of the 16.5 miles which this section covers. My altimeter eventually registered over 10,000ft which wasn’t on the elevation profile. Whatever expectations I’d had for the section were gone. Gusts of wind would rush powerfully in the trees. It hailed briefly. Upward I went, hoping that there wouldn’t be an exposed ridge walk and that they weather wouldn’t get any worse. There was enough blue in the sky that I bet against a storm but not enough blue for me to feel secure that a storm wasn’t coming.

Screenshot of the elevation profile for Pole Canyon to Geyser Pass. This should have been 16.5mi.

You can only climb for so long before you run out of mountain. Conveniently, the trail flattened out even before that. The leaves had fallen, covering the trail in gold and making for a wonderful late fall landscape. Where the trail was thin, ambiguous, or poorly maintained, this made it hard to decide where to go.

Leaves covered the trail making it beautiful but hard to follow where overgrown.
It look me a minute to find the trail. Glad it wasn’t night.

I hadn’t seen much in the way of flagging for some time and understood why GPS had been required. The terrain had dropped and climbed and worked it’s way around to a different side of this complex of mountains. I was hungry and the guacamole wrap I’d packed out was a mess and so would be much easier to eat sitting down. So I sat down, making an impromptu aid station out of stump. It was strange to stop and relax outside of an aid station, but I enjoyed the food and relaxed for a moment like I would have on a hike. After all, that’s what I was on for this section, just a hike. That didn’t keep me from looking back and wondering why someone hadn’t caught up yet. It didn’t feel like I’d been moving much faster than a walk (recently my watch was timing my miles at over 20 minutes) so that even Robert might have caught me if he’d been efficient at the last aid station.

Shortly after lunch, there began a long descent. The trail was frequently faint though there was now some flagging. A sense of déjà vu was growing and was now quite strong. One intersection in particular was choked with fallen trees and the outlet trail overgrown so I had to push through some brush following my GPS closely (the course didn’t quite follow the trail which makes me think that whoever recorded the track did the same thing). One of the signs indicating a right turn at that intersection had fallen over. All of this seemed to match some place I’d been before, but oddly, my memory was of turning left at the intersection and not wishing to be whoever had to follow the bad signage pointing to a trail I couldn’t see.

Later I crossed the top of a small meadow with cows grazing. There was an obvious cross-trail which went over a small bridge near where a couple was sitting. I could have sworn I’d once passed through on the cross-trail. I turned left onto it since the GPS track went left here but had to backtrack because there was another trail which went left but also climbed. The entrance had been hidden by the couple and the flagging to indicate the correct trail to take had fallen under a bush. When I saw the correct trail, I remembered seeing it before and wondering at that time where it went. I guess now I was going to find out.

Cows. Just after this, I made my only wrong turn of the section because the flagging had fallen under a bush.

This later part of the section was much gentler than the first part, the weather was better, and the trail better maintained. After reaching a dirt road and turning onto what the GPS track said would be the last bit of single-track before the walking up a forest road to the Geyser Pass aid station, I calculated that there was 4 to 5 miles remaining. The difference between the total distance traveled as tracked by my watch and the official course mileage seemed to vary so I wasn’t quite sure how much was left in the section. Using a prominent climb and altimeter to find myself on the elevation profile wasn’t an option because the elevation profile was short. Still, relief began to settle in. This had been a section with so many unknowns and now there didn’t seem to be much between me and the aid station.

From three to two miles before Geyser Pass Aid, delusions of grandeur returned. Maybe I’d get to meet the first and second place finishers and we’d all have our photo together, implying I was a similar of athlete to them. I tried to come up with something brief, personal, and complimentary to say to each when I shook their hands. Then I remembered COVID (no hand shaking) and that they’d have finished so much earlier that they’d be snoozing off their sleep deficit when I crossed the finish line. Maybe I’d get to say something on camera instead. I tried to come up with a sound bite or short spiel which could be adapted for length. I wound up thinking about my dad and how he’s always been proud of me when I when I wanted someone to be proud of me, and yet I never felt the stereotypical pressure to live up to expectations. “Dad, you may have an adult son now, it’s wonderful knowing I’ll always be your child” was the one-liner I was going to say while staring seriously into the lens of the video camera transmitting (live of course) to a local TV station. As horribly sappy that may be in retrospect, I was now crying openly from completely sincere emotion. The cows didn’t judge, so you shouldn’t either.

A cow which kindly decided to get off the trail and let me pass.

The last mile into Geyser Pass aid station was a strong hike up a well maintained forest road. I was emotionally back together and thinking about the future. Two more sections, both downhill. About an hour until dark. I still had a liter of water and so drank it to avoid spending time at the aid station rehydrating. I left my running vest unbuckled after getting the water bottle. I felt confident. I had swagger. Things were proceeding according to the morning’s plan which had only been a hope 24 hours prior and unimaginable before that.

Geyser Pass (mi 201.4) to Porcupine Rim (mi 223.9)

I was intent on making the Geyser Pass aid stop efficient and started making requests of the first person I saw. This person turned out not to be a volunteer but was kind enough to say something encouraging and direct me appropriately. I didn’t want to get off my feet until my vest was reset. This was a sleep station and sleeping seemed nice but an unnecessary nap would be a stupid way to lose a podium spot. When I finally got off my feet, a volunteer came over, placed a chair opposite and was about to help put my feet up on it when I did so myself. They were surprised I still could. I’m not sure how anyone could go another 40 miles if they couldn’t pick their feet up enough to put them on a chair.

While I was eating a guacamole tortilla (my go-to “real food” of the race), another fellow by the fire pit told me he was crewing Robert. I gave him what info I had on Robert. This fellow was watching a basketball game and so I asked if he could check the live position tracking to see how far away the next few runners were. Apparently Witt was past Pole Canyon Aid. This fellow then told me that he had once put on a 24hr race which Witt had won with 116 miles and that Witt was a former record holder on the Arizona Trail. Witt may have mentioned the AZT when I met him on Lockhart Basin Road but didn’t mention a speed record. That got me off the fence about napping here. I might have a good lead on Witt (it wasn’t clear by how much), but I figured that I wanted four hours to feel secure. Also, the appearance of an insurmountable lead might be demotivating to him and so help me keep that lead. For the first time, I felt like I was making a decision as a competitor in it to win it and not just a hiker here for a good time. The first rule of competition is to respect the competition.

I walked out of the Geyser Pass Aid and onto the road. After some time (longer than the quarter mile which a bystander said it would be), I turned off on a trail which began to descend steeply as night was falling. In the dying light, my weak headlamp wasn’t much help, and I was worried that I’d trip. The trail was broken enough that without good depth perception I kicked a number of rocks and almost fell once. How could this go on for 20 miles? or was it 22 miles? What was the offset between the official mileage an my watch at the previous aid station? Was this downhill going to slow me so much that Witt would see me as a target and not beyond his reach? The trail passed a lake, but it was too dark to really see.

Bad picture of the orange sun going down through orange leaves. Trust me, it was pretty.

Eventually the descent ended in a forest road which lead to a trail which climbed steeply on large, uneven rocks. I remembered it was about 500ft from the elevation profile but this seemed to be much longer. Déjà vu was returning. This climb seemed familiar, particularly as it began to level out onto a trail which ran near a road. I seemed to remember having joined the trail from that road and looked down at the way I’d now climbed up, and thought at the time that it looked like a hard climb and that I was glad not to have to make it. My déjà vu seems to have a theme: that I was now following a route whose travellers I once pietied. Maybe it was just how I responded to sleep deprivation.

I could see my breath now and for the first time in the race it was cold. My shirt was sweaty and I didn’t think I’d stay warm on the flats and downhills at a walk and so stopped to layer up. I put on everything and was shivering and clenching my muscles for warmth by the time I was done. I’m normally very warm when active but it took several miles of walking and jogging to warm up enough to relax.

Those miles had taken me along a contour which I’m sure would have had a beautiful view in the daylight and onto a broad dirt road. This road walk would continue for the rest of the section and the mental struggle to stay awake and moving became the defining struggle of the event. My walking pace on this well graded downhill dropped below 4mph, and flirted with the same speed Jason had been walking on a downhill, due to mental struggles, at the time I’d caught him. The trees lining the road seemed to have RVs sticking out of the back of them and no matter how intently I stared, they wouldn’t resolve. At one point, a blue and green ghost head expanded out of a rock like a drop of water, looked at me, and dissipated. I put on a podcast episode containing an interview with the designer of my favorite backpacking tent. Everything I ate had caffeine. The weight of the unknown hours remaining to walk the miles remaining was it’s own form of anguish. At first, I remembered walking this road in a dream where there had been more ghosts and more RVs. Then came the turn onto Sand Flats Road and I was convinced I’d been here before. I couldn’t say when as the Hayduke Route doesn’t come this way and that’s my only previous trip in the region.

Eventually, there was another turn onto a section of road which looked on the map like the outline of a person’s face in profile. It was so familiar, though I’m sure I’d noted the shape on a map before. There was such a long ways to walk. Perhaps the incline of the road and side trails reminded me of something on the Hayduke near Bryce? I can’t remember what the podcast was about in this section. I began pulling out my phone to see my if the arrow representing me had made any progress and was always disappointed. Finally the little arrow reached the last straight-away. It was a descent which starts above a highway which it parallels, then and ends below the highway. There were a distant series of lights which looked like parked cars where… where I remembered seeing something under daylight conditions and at the time thought they were a resupply only to realize my path turned under the highway instead of over it. I looked at the GPS track and it appeared to turn under the highway. If you can make accurate predictions about reality based on déjà vu, is it still déjà vu?

I reached the turn to go under the highway but was directed by course markers into the Porcupine Rim aid station. My head cleared. They told me I looked to be in good shape and was lucid. I intended only to reset my vest and continue, but a chair was put under me. A selection of hot beverages were offered and I asked for all of them. I was trading remarks with an solicitous volunteer from Lake Forest, near where I live, when Flyby came around from behind the aid station and dropped into a chair across from me. She was recovering from pacing Witt between Road 46 and Geyser Pass. Not an easy section, but it turns out that Mikaela “Flyby” Osler has a thru-hiking resume longer than mine and the women’s self-supported speed record on the Colorado Trail. Minutes flew by as we chatted about the race, hot drinks showed up, we talked about hiking, and hot drinks were consumed. The conversation expanded to a volunteer who’d had to cancel her PCT hike due to COVID, the day she was supposed to get on the plane to leave. At some point, I became conscious that time was passing (it had been 45 minutes), I reset my vest, and Lake Forest lead me out.

Porcupine Rim (mi 201.4) to Finish (mi 240.2)

I started the final section full of energy. I’d been hoping for a good running surface to fly on but found a wide (good), well used (good) but technical (bad, very bad) off-roading track. I dropped down steps and bounded between rocks. Sometimes a smooth section would open up and I could run for 100ft or so. The predictive déjà vu was strong but not as specific. There were many twists, bumps, and drops for which which I had a premonition and as soon as I saw them, recalled hiking them in rich daylight, not by the ghostly wash of my headlamp.

The initial energy wore off and I had to remember to eat and drink. Eventually, I drank enough that I had to stop and transfer water. For the first time in the race, I had to dig a cat hole and use it. Eventually, after passing through by BLM (Bureau of Land Management) signs (which I remembered), a straighter stretch opened up and I could see lights in the distance which I thought might be Moab, but which I remembered having given me false hope on a previous hike.

The most distinct memory which I was holding on to as a test of this déjà vu was a point the trail appears to continue along a shelf, but then the shelf disappears and you have to drop down a few feet to continue. This came in the second to last part of this section, amid a number of memorable features of the trail which I distinctly recalled, but only after seeing them. Still, I would swear under oath that I’d been here before, but hiking in daylight, not jogging at night.

The home stretch started when the trail came to a road. The road was a slight uphill and in places diverted onto a bike path which seemed bolted to the edge of the road. Whenever I check my watch, I was running close to 10min/mi, about the pace I’d had at the start. I felt strong. I counted down the tenths of a mile on my watch. I turned up my headlamp so I could see everything. The bridge under which I’d have to pass for the final half mile or so didn’t appear where I expected but I only slowed for a moment. My lungs were comfortable, my legs were strong, my heart was fine. It was night and there was no one spectating. I was alone when I spotted Lions Park, alone as I passed under the bridge and turned, alone as I opened my gait on the highway to the Moab RV Park, alone as I turned down the driveway. Just before at the U-turn to face the finish I heard a cow bell. I leaned into that final turn and let myself sprint. I saw the red numbers on the race clock past the finish arch but couldn’t process what they were. I was among the flags of many nations. I was passing under the arch labeled Finish.

Epilogue

There were just a few people at the finish. One had a camera. Look at the camera. Look into the lens. Stop running or you’ll collide with the table. Another person, a beautiful woman with eyes which open wide enough to see the white all the way around the iris just like… oh, that’s the race director and she’s holding a cellphone at you the way people do when taking video. Respond thoughtfully to the questions but don’t get side-tracked. Remember, the goal of an interview is to survive with your character intact. You’re folding your hands hands, palms up, and standing in 3/4 profile like dad does. Bonus points for intelligence, affability, and humor. How to acknowledge accomplishment but present humility? Now you have to pick a buckle. Where’s your executive function when you need it. Just pick one. OK, that took too long. More pictures. More back-and-forth. I’m just a thru-hiker. I’m not a runner. I don’t know how any of this happened.

When the interview was over and the pictures taken, I wound up near a gas fire pit with a few of the volunteers. I got to ask them stuff about themselves. A COO of a small company pointed out a defect in a product from my employer. I heard about what it was like setting up races, “in the old days”. I got to quiz someone on vanlife and since none of us were local we all compared experiences sleeping in our vehicles on the way here. A plate of food which I’d been offered repeatedly but forgotten to pick up was foisted on me. After I was done eating, the volunteer responsible for coordinating something among all aid station (the COO in real life, I wish I could remember anyone’s name), said one of the ham radio operators was willing to give me a ride back to my car, that there were showers in the bath house near the start line, and that I could probably fit my car between the RV (not a hallucinated one) and the Subaru. This was a huge kindness as I’d otherwise have had to walk about a mile back to my car then call around to find a hotel room available at 6am to shower and crash. Instead I got pretty clean (forgot the soap) and warm quickly. They even let me nap in the back of my car even despite there technically not being any race parking allowed. While I’d been lucid and pain free throughout the entire race, I woke up from the nap with swollen ankles, feet, and face. I now felt comfortable operating a vehicle, at least long enough to find a quiet, shaded side street on which to park for my next nap. After that would be breakfast.

Afterward

I’m prone to long trip reports but since I’m assuming that placing 3rd at the Moab 240 will be the height of my competitive athletic success, I want to remember it. What I’m happiest with was that the podium position enhanced, but didn’t come at the expense of the race experience I wanted. I got to connect with a number of other racers but especially Cynthia, Bellingham, Zach, Jason, and Robert when it made sense to travel together. I remember when the first and second place finishers passed me. I didn’t have to force myself to leave aid stations, I left when I felt like it. The volunteers were fun to chat with and incredibly supportive. It was exciting the several times, I recognized someone from a previous aid station. Meeting Mikaela and Witt separately, then getting more backstory on each was fantastic. The outdoors experience was nice, sometimes even grand, but half the race was at night when I couldn’t see farther than maybe a dozen feet in front of me. I never pushed physically harder than I wanted and felt clear, awake, and present during the days. Staying awake through the nights was a real effort, the true struggle of the event. Arguably, the experience could be summed up as a compressed thru-hike with more discomfort and less fun. Endurance races are compatible with full-time employment, though, and so I’m glad I’ve gotten to try a longer one. Like thru-hiking, it turns out that the human connection is what makes it most special.

On a final note, when I went on Ultra Signup to find out what my official time was (71:23:09), I discovered that the reason my name was misspelled on my bib was because I misspelled it in my Ultra Signup account. That’s embarrassing.

Results
All my pics

Buckskin Ridge, Frosty Pass, PCT Loop (September 19-21, 2020)

Red – Buckskin Ridge (Saturday)
Orange – Frosty Pass (Sunday)
Red – PCT (Monday)

Saturday, September 19

Emily and I met at the PCT trailhead just south of the Slate Pass trailhead. While gearing up, a couple pulled up and asked if this was the place to wait for their son who was finishing the PCT with some friends. It was and they gave us several homemade chocolate chip cookies from a real cookie jar. We walked a short distance up the road to a nearby trailhead and started up the Buckskin Ridge Trail from the Slate Pass TH.

A sign greets you a hundred yards or so at the beginning of the first traverse.

The Buckskin Ridge Trail starts by contouring along Gold ridge past Silver Lake. After a while, it reaches Silver Pass and switches from the east side of Gold ridge to the west side of Buckskin Ridge. Ideally, it would slowly climb from there to the shoulder where it descends to Buckskin Lake. Instead, it drops most of the way to the valley then climbs almost straight up the steep hillside before beginning contouring again. We completed this pointless up and down in the rain. A long food break had been planned for Buckskin Lake but the mileage on Emily’s watch was counting past the 10 miles which the trailhead sign had claimed it would get us there. We were both getting hungry so we ate at the top of the climb from which the topo map promised a uniformly downhill trip. I was in shorts and a t-shirt and had enough body heat to get through the meal without shivering. Emily had the opposite experience and it was a funny contrast.

The larches were beginning to change but other than that, we had a view of the cloud.

The larches were beginning to change.

Eventually we did reach Buckskin Lake. It was pretty and made a tempting place to stop. However, with the mileage a little uncertain, we decided to get down the hill at least as far as the Middle-Fork Pasayten River. This would carry us past daylight and from the steepness of the valley on the topo map, wasn’t clear to me that there would be campsites when we first neared the river. Oddly, when we neared the river, there was a 3-way intersection, not the left turn southward that our maps showed. With no sign, we made the decision to turn south, away from our destination, thinking that was a spur trail to the water. This turned out to be correct, except for the spur part. This was a connector trail to a well built bridge to access a parallel trail which runs down the valley on the east side of the river. We camped on our side but it was fascinating finding a well maintained, unmapped trail exactly where you might expect one.

The rain had stopped but we were cold and so made hot chocolate while setting up the tents after which we spent most of the rest of the evening hiding in them.

Sunday, September 20

Fortunately, it wasn’t raining when we woke up. Just as we were packing the tents, it started just a little. This is fall in the pacific northwest. Always a threat of rain, even when none is forecast.

The trail ran flat along the river valley for several miles, the river always out of sight. The trail was good, with cut logs and horse hooves showing recent trail maintenance.

Easy trail with regular maintenance.

We got turned around briefly after crossing Rock Creek by a switchback which was actually a spur trail to the horse ford. It was funny to reach a river, look upstream, and see the bridge we’d just crossed. We turned around and found a rock hop across the next stream with an exit path partially hidden behind bushes. This lead us up the bank to a collapsed cabin. I can’t run into something like this and wonder about the history. It’s old enough to have collapsed due to deterioration but has somehow survived all the fires which have claimed similar cabins in the area.

Collapsed cabin near Rock Creek.

From here the trail seemed to have degraded significantly. Perhaps the trail maintainers had come down from the Rock Pass Trail then turned south along the West-Fork Pasayten Trail leaving this northbound section to the bushes and blowdowns? After vaulting over a fallen log every ten yards or so and pushing passed the low bushes encroaching on the trail, we suddenly came to another trail, broad and clear. Where did it come from? Maybe were were supposed to have crossed somewhere else?

Emily is on the trail up from the cabin. Can you see it? Jolly has found the main trail. Good dog.

This good trail brought us to a strange gate with three crossbars which you lifted out of their sockets and replaced after passing. It was a curious design, at approximately the junction with a mapped trail which appears to no longer exist. On the other side were a number of recent hoofprints. There didn’t seem to be land ownership boundary so we were curious about the gate.

The trail then lead us to an open field. This must be the Pasayten Airstrip which Scott Williamson had mentioned when I encountered him on my last sojourn in these parts. It was very exciting to unexpectedly find things I’d heard about. Then we saw horses. That explained the hoofprints. They were tied to a hitching posted. Then we spotted a cabin and heard voices.

Our maps showed two trails north of us which connected from our current valley to the PCT. I was worried that our intended one, labeled “Old Boundary Trail” wouldn’t be maintained because the other was labeled, “Boundary Trail” and so was presumably newer. I stopped by the cabin to see if they occupants had any beta. Inside, I met Ray who has been running a trail crew in the area and who we have to thank for the ease of our passage. There was a large map in the cabin so I went to show Ray our intended route. All the names on this map were different from ours. Then, I realized that the “Boundary Trail” on my map simply wasn’t shown on Ray’s map. “Anything we haven’t been maintaining will be pretty rough” said Ray. We believed him. Old Boundary Trail (aka Frosty Pass Trail) it would be.

Kurt & Ray. Ray runs the trail crew which was responsible for the easy of our hike.

The Frosty Pass Trail started as a turn-off so easy to miss it was cairned and quickly became hikerwash but otherwise was a well graded uphill full of yellowing and reddening ground cover. The slightly sinusoidal motion with which Jolly walks earned him the name “Shrub Shark” since his back was just about level with the bushes.

The Frosty Pass Trail crosses two passes. The first is a low one with a long, flat top which traps a thin body of water called Dead Lake. It’s unique in that it could have two outlet streams, though there appeared not to really be one at either end.

Dead Lake.

From there the trail wound its way down to the Chuchawanteen River at an old cabin site. It would have been exciting to see another cabin, but we couldn’t find it. The trail which would have connected down from the “Boundary Trail” (the one not on Ray’s map) had several blowdowns visible from the intersection and had a much darker and narrower trail bed implying less use. Many thanks Ray.

The trail to Frosty Pass itself contained a few points of interest.

A mini dead lake.
What’s Emily pointing at?
Bird guts. eeew.
About half a mile before Frosty Pass, the fall colors were on full display. Also, we saw a bear.

From Frosty Pass, we descended to the PCT. This is a view PCT hikers don’t get to see since they’ve been under the trees for the several miles leading to the junction and so it was fun to see familiar terrain from a new angle.

A primary goal of the trip was to meet Emily’s friend from Instagram, Greg. He’s Canadian and came down to the PCT’s northern terminus to meet us. Emily was beside herself with delight: this was her first time revisiting a place pregnant with memories. Meeting Greg and sharing the moment with some thru-hikers who had just finished their trip made it all that much better. The mood was celebratory and a lot of champagne was consumed. Greg would later tell me that moments before we showed up, the thru-hiker couple got engaged (they didn’t mention this to us, but it’s been a while and I haven’t used their names so I’m assuming it’s OK to say).

Emily & Greg having their minds blown by the fact that this border meetup is happening.

We camped with Greg at the campsite just inside Canada, making Emily an international criminal. I’m already a repeat offender. Our tents were set in a tight triangle so we could see each other and talk from reclined comfort. Food offerings were made. Libations were drunk. Conversation was had. We spent a lot of time quizzing Greg on his career outdoors. It was a good night.

Monday, September 21

Wake-up was 6am, a little before sunrise. Greg accompanied us for the first hundred yards south of the border to experiment with international criminality. He didn’t have the stomach to accompany us the 7-8 miles to breakfast at the top of the first climb. On the way, we recreated pictures from the end of Emily’s 2016 PCT hike which she’d since lost.

The border cut by early morning light.

This is my second time hiking this section this year. The big difference was the colors. At the end of summer they were bright. The greens were varied, subtle, luscious, and brilliant. They made you ache with life. In the early fall, the colors were more subdued but august. The overcast skies, ominous but grand and added an intensity to the whole experience.

Fall colors, mild overcast, looming ridges.

After a long day of hiking, golden hour softened into twilight as we walked the final miles. The sun lit a fire behind the cascades to the east. The cascades to the south and west turned purple and other-worldly. The moon rose. The PCT just north of Harts Pass is always beautiful if not socked in but this was the most enchanting I’d ever seen it.

The moment, however, which may have most captured the experience was about a mile from the end. I looked back and saw Emily looking up toward toward the moon, still low in the southern sky. Her head was forward to balance the weight of her pack and so instead of tilting her head back, her eyes were wide and upturned like a child’s. The expression captures not just the wonder of the moment but also Greg’s enthusiasm for a life lived outdoors and the ebullience of the couple at the terminus. Hiking alone, you can experience all of this by yourself. To experience it collectively is a mild form of ecstasy.

The sun going down on another beautiful hike.

All Pics

Emily’s Instagram Posts 1, 2, 3, 4

Stehekin Bakery Loopish (September 11-13, 2020)

The initial plan for this weekend was three day hike with a border meetup at the PCT’s northern terminus. Then work schedules intervened. Emily decided to visit the Stehekin Bakery instead and it sounded like a good idea to me. The Stehekin Bakery is a notable stop on the PCT. I spent $60 there in 2016 and gave myself a raging food coma. The cinnamon buns are particularly notable. The trip’s secondary objective was to get away from the smoke blowing north. In this regard, we were partially successful.

Northern Terminus – Bridge Creek TH
Southern Terminus – Stehekin Bakery
Outbound – east over McAlester Pass
Return – west over Rainbow Pass & PCT

Friday, September 11

I drove to Bridge Creek Trailhead as soon as work was over, arriving a little after dark. Emily pulled in while I was circling the parking area looking for the stand up paddle paddle board usually strapped to the top of her car. She parked and I pulled up and got out to say hi. I turned around to actually park my car and it was dead. This is a new-to-me car named Elliot since I tore an engine mount bracket on my last car (Eleanor) which isn’t produced anymore. Elliot had done so well on his maiden voyage. At a loss for what to do, we decided to jump Elliot and in the process, accidentally bumped the connection to the positive battery terminal. Elliot powered back on. Rotating the wiring 90 degrees kept Elliot on long enough to park. We’ll call this the pre-adventure adventure.

We made it a few miles of easy downhill to Fireweed Camp in the dark, chatting the whole way. This area was full of memories for me despite being ostensibly nondescript. At one point there was an enormous frog in the middle of the trail. Its camouflage was perfect until it moved. Unfortunately, it moved very slowly, jumping up an embankment and running into plants mid-jump and falling back. It seemed too large for it’s own good. Jolly, Emily’s dog, sniffed it but was kind enough to let it live.

The night was warm and there was no rain forecast so we both cowboy camped in an established site, ate the very soft ice-cream we’d packed in (ice cream ranks as one of the most desired trail foods so why not take some if the first leg of your journey is short?), and admired the stars for a bit before falling asleep.

Saturday, September 12

It was a dry morning – no dew on our sleeping bags and no hikerwash. This is one of the things which makes summer camping so easy and comfortable it feels like cheating. Of course, that dryness was feeding the fires to the south. The smoke from those fires made a light haze in the air, but the sky was still more blue than brown.

The trail was easy and well cut. It climbed slowly through a forest to McAlester Lake which I swam across, and then through some meadows with low peaks on each side. The ground cover is beginning to turn red, signalling the start of my favorite color scheme in the mountains.

Smoke was still a light haze in the morning. Ground cover starting to redden.

On the descent from McAlester Pass, there was a short, wobbly bridge. The trick with these is to place one foot in front of the other to minimize side-to-side sway. We intended to go one at a time so as not cause the bridge to sway for each other, but Jolly didn’t get the memo. He was very unhappy with the bridge. If only he’d waited his turn.

Jolly, unhappy with the swinging bridge, puts Emily off balance.

There’s one road through Stehekin. It doesn’t connect to any other roads. The only way in to Stehekin is by foot or ferry. Clearly we’d chosen foot, but I assume that the presence of cars meant that some people choose ferry. This road presented us with a problem: should we follow it right or left. The bakery wasn’t marked on our map. Fortunately, there was a sign.

A terribly taken selfie. That sign was well welcome guidance. Clearly a popular destination.

The bakery was full of people and baked goods. Surprisingly, there were no PCT through-hikers. We ate two courses, lounged around for a while, then bought some baked goods for the road. Emily tried to make friends with some chickens which were wandering around but they’d run off whenever she got close.

Full bellies don’t make walking easy so in the late afternoon we decided to amble, mosey, or saunter – but not walk – back to the trail in the hopes of getting a head start on tomorrow’s mileage. Smoke had rolled in and shortened our sight lines. However, most of the hike (we did eventually start moving with a little more zest) was up a valley where there weren’t long or sweeping views to ruin.

The sky was now brown, not blue.

We made it as far as the wobbly bridge then cowboy camped. Dinner was mostly an apple pie from the bakery.

Sunday, September 13

It was another dry summer morning. On our way out of camp, we crossed the wobbly bridge which Jolly didn’t like. This time he realized that he could just splash across the low stream underneath instead of placing his paws on its unstable boards.

As the trail crept upward (but mostly horizontally) towards Rainbow Pass, we came suddenly across a large biped munching happily in patch of huckleberries. Fortunately this was a human, not a bear. Josh was his name, and he gave us some tips on berrying and told us about some of his off-trail adventures in the area. It was a great connection because we both like berries and we’d spent some time tracing probable off-trail routes on Emily’s large NatGeo map the prior evening.

The smoke had stayed from the night before. Rainbow Lake didn’t appear to be particularly pretty and the smoke certainly didn’t help. We ate more baked goods instead of real food. On a stump, Emily found a book on transhumanism which made for an interesting conversation and took our mind off the switchbacks to Rainbow Pass. Unfortunately, there were no rainbows, only smoke.

No rainbows over Rainbow Lake, only smoke.

From there, the trail dropped steeply into a river valley then descended gently to a crossing just before the PCT. It was one of those odd situations where a trail gets close to a river but the point where it hits the bank is clearly not where you’re supposed to cross. We found a well used footlog which Jolly liked more than the swinging bridge.

The joys of stability.

We ate a meager lunch at the PCT, having consumed all the baked goods we intended too. I had a bunch of bars left, all the same flavor. Then we made it back the way we’d come.

The last miles were the ones we’d walked on Friday night. They were nondescript miles surrounded by brush and trees. Oddly, it seemed to match my memories from 2016 of the PCT less than when outbound on Friday, despite Friday’s hiking having been in the dark and the opposite direction. Still, the final miles outbound were memorable because we debated how positive modern music is compared to music from an older generation. Having taken the negative side, I lost the debate when Emily introduced me to the music of Michael Franti which seemed like a good match for how fun the weekend had been, even with the smoke.

All my pics

Emily’s Instagram post

Glacier Peak Circumnavigation (August 29-30, 2020)

I’m prepping for a long running event this October (so long it’s not officially a race, they just happen to record your time and give out prizes to the winners) and running 82mi around Glacier Peak some weekend seemed like a good training exercise. My friend Anda was prepping for a slightly larger circumnavigation trip and mentioned that many trails in the area had been abandoned. I called off a trip earlier this year due to lingering snow but with a free weekend and a need to put miles on my feet I set out to see what was what.

Glacier Peak circumnavigation route (hiked counter-clockwise) ~82mi, ~20,000ft elev gain
Car was parked at SE tip of route.
Orange trails were presumed abandoned at the start of the hike.
ITB symptoms started about 30 miles in.
Camp was set about 38 miles in.
Yellow trails are not recently maintained.

Saturday

My alarm went off in the back of my car at 5am. I turned it off an didn’t move. Somehow I was walking past the kiosk having filled out a self-issue permit at 5:35am.

The plan was to get to the Boulder Creek trail after sunrise since that’s where I thought the trail had been abandoned and wanted good light and as many hours as possible to deal with whatever would come. It turned out to be well cut, often traveled (even by pack animals based on the poop), and I was able to climb leisurely up to Boulder Pass.

My route goes right. I’d assumed it’d be abandoned and was pleasantly surprised to find it well maintained.

As the route worked it’s way up through the high valley, the sun rose, pulling a line of light down the ridge of granite above the pass. I managed to stay in the shade almost until the top. This game of trying to stay out of the sun on a hot day or get into the sun on a cold one is a standard feature of early morning starts.

Near the top of Boulder Pass.

The trail down from Boulder Pass had tight, sinusoidal switchbacks which looked like a tan snake in the dull green ground cover. I tried to cut a few switchback by boot skiing down a snow patch on a rock field but fell near the end. Boot skiing, where safe to do so, is probably my favorite form of back country transit.

I tried to cut a switchback by boot skiing and ended with a “unintentional glissade”

At one point, the trail split. I was about to follow the better worn fork, but reasoned that it looked like a spur trail to a viewpoint. Then I noticed a small cairn to the left and followed it. It’s always interesting when the lesser trail at a fork turns out to be the main path. Perhaps this section hasn’t see much official maintenance, just a lot of foot traffic.

Don’t be fooled, the trail goes left (note the cairn).

Back under the treeline, I was ambushed at one particular turn in the trail by a bleached skull. I’m guessing it was a horse. The trail here was thin and the hillside very steep. The first blowdowns had finally appeared. It was easy to imagine an in injured pack animal getting stuck in this section and eventually expiring. Or maybe someone just left the skull there to spook people.

A horse skull (I guess) on the descent from Boulder Pass.

I saw my first other person, a slightly larger version of Justin Simoni. They were dressed like an endurance runner with ankle gaiters on their thick-soled trail runners, compression socks, a low-volume pack overnight pack, hiking hard uphill. They traded brief words but shouted them over their shoulder as they passed. On meeting two fashionably dressed, well coiffed fellows shortly thereafter, I asked if they knew what the runner was up to. They said, “some crazy shit”. I wondered if the runner was also doing a circumnavigation and hoped I’d see them again (it was not to be). I told the pair that I’d heard these trails were abandoned and they said they thought they’d used to be but were now seeing a lot of traffic. They also said I was about to encounter some alder which would make me take back my positive assessment of the trail condition. The alder turned out to be minimal and barely overgrowing the trail. When I got to the river valley where the wet conditions breed dense, rapidly growing plants which eat trail, there was still a clear path to follow. I don’t know if these trails are officially abandoned or not but if they are, the foot traffic is doing quite well for them.

Clearly this has seen maintenance in the last few years plus a lot of foot traffic.

After being unable to find a dry-foot crossing of the Napeequa River I got my feet wet and turned left at the Little Giant trail. This was dominated by high grasses which had been trodden and smashed along the trail forming a corridor which funneled you along with little opportunity to divert. I’d feared traveling on what I’d thought would be an abandoned trail in a river valley. Trails have a way of disappearing into luscious meadows with no hint of where they might exit. The facts on the ground were a welcome relief.

The Little Giant trail follows the valley past two waterfalls, then climbs almost straight up the hill through the dense brush on the north side of the second. I passed a trail runner on their way down. The conversation was quick, “wow, this is steep”, “it’s ok the views at the top are great”, “in 100ft or so it flattens out, you’re almost done”, “you’re not”. They smiled mischeviously over their shoulder and dropped out of sight. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a long climb but it was claustrophobic.

The trail goes almost straight up through the bushes on the left.

Above the waterfall was a high valley where the trail played hide and seek. It seemed to follow a bit of the ridge in the middle when that was present but sometimes you could see trail on both sides which really means that there’s no trail. Just go up the valley and pick the correct saddle to exit when you come to the top. GPS made the macro navigation trivial, but in one case, I tried to avoid a small climb, then wound up climbing up some slippery rocks when the stream branch I was following ended in a small waterfall.

Trail disappears. Frolic as you please, just stay right at the end of the valley.

Around High Pass, I got my first real views of the wild high country for which the Glacier Peak Wilderness is famous. Something I hadn’t realized is that Glacier Peak itself doesn’t dominate the area like Rainier or Adams. Despite being almost a quarter of the way around Glacier Peak, it was just getting my first glimpses of it, and they were distant.

There’s a lake under High Pass which, from the topo map, was under a steep drop-off. I didn’t realize how steep until I got to the pass and didn’t see the lake. It wasn’t until I was almost at the edge that lake became visible. After crossing a short scree field at the head of a bowl, I ate lunch overlooking the lake from another angle. There were voices below me and I’d seen two people near High Pass. For all it’s reputation as remote, the Glacier Peak wilderness didn’t seem that lonesome during the height of hiking season.

After high Pass. Glacier Peak is the ghost of a mountain in the distance.

After lunch it was clear I was behind schedule. I’d planned for ~2mph until reaching the PCT and I wasn’t averaging that. Fortunately the trail around Liberty Cap and Bucks Pass was well maintained and I cruised the long winding descent that eventually becomes a steep, but still well maintained, drop to the PCT. There were recently cut logs on the final descent and I mentally thanked the trail crews as I zipped past piles of fresh sawdust.

It was about 4:45pm when I reached the PCT and I’d gone about 24 miles. I wanted at least 30 on the day and since the trail here was a gentle slope of manicured uniformity, I decided jogging wouldn’t hurt. I passed several groups and individuals and then a pain started building in the outside of my left knee. It started quietly and since there are many fleeting aches and pains on any long bipedal excursion, I ignored it. Eventually, it built to the point where I had to consciously brace my left leg to keep it from weakening under the sharp pain during the load and release of each stride. This seemed unlikely to be transient so I stopped for a few seconds, then walked. That gave whatever was happening a chance to gather it’s forces and the only relief I could find was in keeping my left knee perfectly straight. This allowed me to hobble without pain, but realistically the knee had to bend a little here and there. The next several miles were on gently rolling trail and saw me apply great creativity to bipedal walking mechanics: swing the hips, trekking pole skipping, hips back, bouncing on the balls of the foot. Anything which would give the left leg a little extra room to swing through each stride without bending the knee.

After 7-8,000ft of elevation gain and loss, this gentle, well-maintained section is what damaged my knee.

The next several miles were slow and difficult, though not without their charms. I saw a porcupine. I saw a hut of sticks, though I didn’t have motivation to walk the 10 yards off trail to investigate. I saw two hikers with PCT markers attached to the shoulder straps of their packs and chatted with them for a bit. Since I was moving slower, I asked them where the next water was as I didn’t want to take it for granted that I’d get to water soon.

A porcupine!

As the trail descended to the Suiattle River, there was a switchback which I remembered from my PCT hike in 2016. It’s a 3-way intersection where the the Suiattle River trail joins the PCT and could have provided a bailout option. I looked at the map but didn’t know if the road to that trail head was passable. I didn’t know the condition of that trail, even if it was much shorter than the ~52mi ahead. My knee pain had lessened slightly and might go away with a good night’s sleep. If it did, I’d regret bailing. If I could do 10 more miles tonight for ~40 on the day, I’d be able to walk it in tomorrow even if I had to go slow the whole way. I decided to roll the dice and kept going.

Dinner at the bridge over the Suiattle River was brief and light. I’d cold soaked ramen, ate potato chips, put my feet up and lay in the trail feeling the aches of the day and low energy bleed out of me. Eventually the ramen was done and there was nothing to do but keep walking. The light was getting dim so along with my headlamp, I put on an audio book to keep me company and distract me from the dread of running through distance-time calculations and scenarios for which I simply didn’t have enough information.

The Suiattle River bridge has a bend in the middle.

The goal had been to climb up to a small saddle where I’d hoped to camp. If things went really well, I’d make it part way along the following traverse to a campsite where I’d spent a night in 2016 shivering in my rain gear which was dry since I hadn’t put it on when the rain started. At some point, I ate bar to keep my energy up but wasn’t feeling hungry. My knee was allowing several degrees of bend which allowed a moderate pace on the easy switchbacks with a visible but not horrifying limp. Around 10pm I realized that my feet weren’t planting cleanly but stepping left and right to catch a subtle swaying of my upper body as though I were having trouble keeping balance. Sure my legs were tired, but that simply didn’t explain it. I didn’t feel like I was bonking and I didn’t feel the full system exhaustion of depletion, but something was definitely not right either.

The GPS said there were just a few more switchbacks to where the trail would cross a ridge at a slight depression. I held out for that and the flat spot which it implied and found something good enough where I figured I wouldn’t roll or slide off anything steep. Rain wasn’t expected until tomorrow evening which was good because I couldn’t find the motivation to put up my tarp with all the dexterity and calculation it requires. Even a tent with poles would have been hard to put up. I did manage to get a ground-cloth under my air pad. Inflating the air pad had taken what seemed like an eternity. I put on my rainsuit to help with the chill which had had me hiking uphill in a fleece (that’s uncommon even on winter excursions) and lay down exhausted. This was the kind of exhaustion that you’re not completely aware of because you’re so exhausted.

At some point in the night I had to pee. I’d wanted to hold it because I was almost out of water and for some reason I think that holding your pee reduces the need to drink. I couldn’t, so I stood on the edge of my sleeping area and relieved myself. The standing made me dizzy and my stomach felt like it was caving inwards. That means a calorie deficit. I ate two bars for the energy and some more potato chips since that’s all I had for salt. It was I had without digging into emergency supplies or food I’d expect to need tomorrow and while I didn’t feel full, it was a clear improvement. I slept much better the rest of the night.

Sunday

I woke as the pre-dawn softening of the sky was just beginning to hide the stars. I didn’t want to go but I didn’t want to stay. I felt clammy from sleeping in my rainsuit, even with layers underneath. It was obvious my knee hadn’t healed in the night so walking meant pain and chill, at least until the chill left and then there’d only be pain. Staying meant feeling damp, smelling rank, but it would be a warm misery. By now I’d looked at the time and my best case projections involved finishing by 11pm. There was naught for it, so I threw off my quilt and faced the day. At least I’d packed clean socks.

My knee wasn’t happy but as long as I kept it pretty straight, it wasn’t complaining too much. There was less creativity required to attain a moderate pace. With the sun rising, and the trail bed relatively good, it was a pleasant morning. At one point, there were horses on the hillside above me and as the light slowly increased, the ground cover went through a range of hues. In 2016 I’d walked this traverse in the early morning and the symmetry of revisiting it under similar conditions was pleasant.

Horses.
Trail.

As the sun was beginning to draw a clean line of light and shadow on the tops of ridge lines, I encountered the descent to Milk Creek. It was exactly as I’d remembered. Heavy vegetation tries to push you off the narrow, broken trail into the open space vacated by a steeply dropping hillside. Going was either slow or painful, and sometimes both. It was hard not to think about the consequences of such a pace. I knew that this too would end in a more forested, less bushy trail but the shallow switchbacks weren’t getting there very quickly.

The ridge across from Milk Cree. Note the dense vegetation in the foreground.

The map shows a trail leaving from Milk Creek and running out to a trailhead where I might have used my inReach to ask a friend to pick me up. It’d have to have been a good friend for the drive would have been long and then they’d have had to drop me off at my car which would have required a circuitous series of roads. The notion was tempting, but not particularly so when it was obvious that that trail was abandoned.

The Milk Creek trail provides no escape.

At Milk Creek, I ate breakfast which was oatmeal with raisins, sugar, and cinnamon. I hadn’t had enough water to soak it overnight so it was flat and felt like chewing cud but was an honestly welcome change from the bars I’d been eating. However, I knew the trail up to Mica Lake was relatively well maintained so I put in the audiobook I’d been listening to the night before and things started looking up (yes, both literally and metaphorically).

The trail up to Mica Lake. Well graded and easy to stride even with a stiff leg.

Mica Lake was beautiful. I’d remembered wishing I had more time to spend there when hiking the PCT in 2016 (I was on a schedule to finish the trail by my birthday) and now I had the same desire. I was behind schedule but I had to eat lunch some time so I pretended that 10am was lunch time. I wanted to swim but the water was cold enough that it would have take a long time to adapt if I’d been able to adapt at all and I’m not usually one to just in all at once. Still, I changed out of my tights, took my shirt off and soaked up the sun while I let my left knee soak up cold. Unfortunately, my projected finish time was slipping towards 3am so when I was done snacking, I moved on.

Mica Lake. Oh how I want to spend more time here.

Despite having iced my knee in Mica Lake, it had become more sensitive. The rest of the climb to Fire Creek Pass was stiff with little jolts of pain whenever I slipped out of a perfectly lock-kneed form. The descent after the pass saw the invention of an new form of skip-hopping to get over little rocks and deformations on the slightly steeper grade. I started becoming quite impressed with the strength and endurance of my right leg which was responsible for most of my forward progress and while not feeling fresh, wasn’t feeling like it was approaching exhaustion either.

Looking at the west side of Glacier Peak shortly after Fire Creek Pass.

Along the west side of Glacier Peak the trail contours across several steep, lush hillsides, then drops to a river valley. On the map, two trails run westward from different ridges, but I found a third which was marked with a yellow sign saying the trail had been damaged. Apparently this area saw massive flooding and landslides in 2003 and while some of the trails have been rebuilt, much also remains degraded or lost.

Where I had my actual lunch.

The river valley had two bridges which were collapsed perfectly in the middle. I passed a number of hikers, including two ladies who were partially running despite having large packs. Their background was as trail runners. They appeared not to have GPS and were navigating off major trail intersections. When they asked if there were which of the two trails we were near, I told them there were three… but that they weren’t at the first one yet. They were moving well and really didn’t have anything to be concerned about since the PCT is by far the major trail at all the intersections.

I guess if the bridge is going to break, this isn’t such a bad way to have it break.
Apparently the Glacier Peak wilderness is good a breaking bridges, but not so good at washing them out.
Taken from a non-broken bridge.

The last hiker I talked to was just as the climb out of the river valley started. Dundee was a Crocs-wearing PCT hiker who matched my complexion and bear color, but with a stronger build. We talked for 10-20 minutes and in this time, my knee apparently healed. Not completely, but it had significant range of motion and could carry enough weight to walk on easy grades without a limp. Fortunately, the climb to Red Pass was easy. I had my mojo back and it was exhilarating.

Rain was forecast for the evening, just like it had been when I passed through in the opposite direction in 2016. The upside was that the air was cool and the light soft.

Part way up to Red Pass.

I reached Red Pass with 2 hours, 15 minutes to make it about 5 miles to the turn-off to the Indian Creek Trail before daylight’s end. It was so runnable and I was wearing a glorified running pack but the knee would not take it so I walked, but at least I could walk pretty quickly.

I kept wondering when the rain would come and it came very hesitantly. At first, the drops were tiny and rare and so would evaporate with my body heat. At dinner (7pm, 1hr of daylight left), I ate the last of the potato chips, the last bar, and broke out the 15 serving container of caffienated gel. 7hrs of calories and my first caffiene of the trip. While I’d been hoping to finish before the rain came, I was feeling optimistic. The temperature was now cool enough that I could wear my light, cheap, easily damaged rainjacket with comfort.

So runnable, so not runnable. Either way, so beautiful.

Eventually, I found myself at a sign of excellent quality which pointed to the White River Trail. This confused me since I thought the White River Trail was abandoned. The trail to which it pointed seemed in good shape. This is a mystery which may require future investigation.

Shortly thereafter, I was at the Indian Creek Trail with 15 minutes of daylight remaining. This was the last leg of my trip and since the WTA description of the White River Trail said that the Indian Creek Trail had been to focus of their maintenance efforts, I was expecting to cruise in the 11 miles by midnight at latest. 11am things went well. Maybe I should have read the WTA’s description of the trail itself which as of this writing opens with, “this crucial connector trail to the PCT in the ultra-rugged Glacier Peak Wilderness requires keen navigation skills (and a strong sense of adventure) as years of overgrown brush make this trail difficult to follow”. And so, after 70ish miles of walking, around 7:45pm, with fading light, the adventure truly began.

The start of the Indian Creek Trail, before dark fell and the rain increased.

The only picture I have from the next four-ish hours that it took to make it down what should have been 9 easy miles is the broken (and not in a nice way) bridge blocking access to the final leg of my journey. In retrospect, dividing out those miles by that time doesn’t seem like I kept such a bad pace. On the ground, the experience was frequently knee- to shoulder-high brush. Fortunately the brush usually had a clear weakness. When the trail was overgrown with bushes and not grass, the trail bed had a distinct feel which suggested that you hadn’t turned off onto a game trail. Under the trees, the trail was frequently faint in the weak beam of my headlamp (turned down to preserve battery given the likely need for extended use), but logical and so wrong turns were relatively unlikely. I found myself praying for treed sections and in the bushy sections, praying. Slowly, tactics developed: when in doubt, barrel ahead and if things don’t work out in 10ft then reconsider. Look for the trail bed under the brush and alder to find an exit from a streambed. This trail does see some traffic, have faith that it goes.

There were two great moments of doubt. The first was in head-high grass. Unlike bushes, which don’t long hold the marks of a recent passage, grass, even head-head grass, is trampled under foot by anything going any which way. These fallen stalks form a mat over the trail bed, obscuring it from sight and feel making it difficult to differentiate among game trails, exploratory side-trips, and the real trail. At points of greatest route-finding difficulty such as streambeds and cracks in the earth, those exploratory trails multiply. This is how I found myself turned around so badly in the rainy dark that I couldn’t find the way I’d come, despite knowing it couldn’t be more than 10 yards away. At this point I stumbled, fell, and on standing up, felt that my phone with it’s blessed GPS and detailed, backlit maps (yes, I had paper maps but they’re useless for micronavigation, particularly in the dark) was gone from its protective holster. I froze, knowing that any motion might take me farther from the point it had fallen and having lost my way from the trail which I knew to be nearby, I had no confidence in my ability find this point again if I left it. I knelt forward, retracing the arc of my fall, cursing the headlamp’s tendency to illuminate the foreground and obscure the background, making it difficult to see under things. I patted the grass and ground with my hands along the line the phone might have been ejected given the angle of my fall. I’d been searching just a few square feet for over a minute and the panic now required conscious suppression. The phone’s screen was cracked – would rain get in and so make it useless even after I found it? I lay my trekking poles down with points touching where phone’s pocket had been closest to the ground, then stepped back, expanding the search radius. Time passed slowly. Was I in over my head in this dark and rain and being so dependent on a water-sensitive device? (literally, yes given the height of the grass) Should I cut my losses and camp here? But I might lose track of where the phone had fallen if I move away to camp. But daylight might make the phone unnecessary…. It was probably less than two minutes before I had the phone back in hand though it didn’t feel that way. The phone was off and didn’t immediately respond to the power button. I held it under my raincoat against my bosom – one of the areas of dry clothing – and after a little more cajoling, it resuscitated. The GPS on that warm, bright screen told me I was on the trail. Right on it. I was just facing 180 degrees from my desired direction of travel. I turned around, stepped a few feet to one side and everything fit again. Then I noticed the subtle dip of the trail bed under a tree which had grown bent, blocking the airspace over the trail from ankle to head. It didn’t look like there was a trail corridor behind that tree but after working around it, I quickly found one and was on my way again.

The second great moment of doubt involved bushwhacking up a dry creek bed against alder after having lost the trail at a previous creek bed whose alder-lined banks showed no evidence of an exit. I’d searched up and down before pushing through, only to be confronted with a sea of hip-high brush with several weaknesses, any or none of which might have been a trail. I picked a line which only required pushing through one or two alder trees before encountering a second bush-filled clearing. This lead to another stream bed but that seemed to provide access to the under-belly of the alder which blocked any uphill move. The GPS said the trail was uphill but would soon turn downhill. I could reach it by going up the stream bed or trying to push across it. I was worried that the downhill would be another stream bed with no apparent exit and so I’d cross the trail without knowing it. I started pushing up the stream bed, displacing alder branches with my head where the headlamp hadn’t illuminated their presence. While it was frustrating and unnerving to be in dense vegetation without the sweet security of a clear path, the my real point of anxiety is that the map source I was using had betrayed me on previous outings when the trail had disappeared. Limited visibility and close vegetation would leave me with somewhat less recourse than the open (if steep) hillside I’d found myself on last time. Luck, however, was on my side and after just a few tens of yards, I suddenly came upon a clear line through hip high shrubs with a trail bed at the bottom. Such was the intensity of my focus in the moment that I barely felt relief. I had a probable way forward and plunged ahead. At some point in recent hours, I’d come to believe that certainty was a fleeting luxury best exploited quickly.

While I’d expected the trail to get better as it reached the intersection of Indian Creek and White River, it wasn’t until the last mile or two that the forest became uniform and the trail was easy to follow. The rain stopped too. This took me to a shattered bridge where I carefully made my way to water level and then eased my way across several rocks, leaning heavily on my poles to avoid having to shift my footing their glistening, slippery surfaces.

This is why you learn to walk on a balance beam in gymnastics.

After that, I took a dump well outside the campsite just on the other side of the river and cruised the easy last two miles to an excellent bridge, across which lay my car. It was 1:01am when I reached my car. I changed out of my damp clothes, partook of my recovery food, and started the car to drive home. I could be home by 4am, time for enough sleep to function at work the next day.

The end (kinda).

Epilogue

When I depressed the button on the shifter to put my car in reverse, it didn’t depress. My car would not shift out of park. My foot was on the break. I popped the hood but had no idea what to look for. I applied as much force to the shifter as I dared. After 15ish minutes, I sent messages by inReach to tell my emergency contacts the situation and not to call Search and Rescue. Then I lay down in the back of my car and slept.

At 7:30am the next morning, I sent another inReach message, this time to my Dad’s phone asking for recommendations on what to do and if he could call a tow truck for me if he didn’t have a better course to recommend. I also send my boss a message explaining that I wouldn’t be at work. Dad wrote back shortly to look for a blown fuse. I do know what the fuse box looks like in my car and since fuses are labeled, I discovered that the one labeled “Brake” was blown. There was one labeled “Spare” and so I changed it. Actually, I changed it for something related to the fuel system first but realized I’d made an accident when the engine wouldn’t start. Either way, that fuse immediately blew as well.

The blown brake fuse and the fuel related fuse which I thought was a spare.

While I still had the hood up, an SUV pulled into the trailhead. This was unexpected, given that it was a Monday. More unexpected, given that they’d just shown up and that COVID is a public health concern, was that the driver agreed to drive me back out to cell service. Mil gracias Allen. The cell service was poor but I was able to call Dad and explain the situation in full. Dad offered to do some research. I got another hitch to good cell service, called a local auto-shop who told me that there was place to put my key near the shifter which would get me out of park. In all my time chasing lost food wrappers and spare change under my front seat, I hadn’t seen a slot for my ignition key which wasn’t related to starting the car so I was skeptical. Internet searches didn’t help. The auto-shop owner had said it’d be in the owners manual, but that manual was two hitches back up the road and out of cell service, a very committing endeavor and auto-shops have been wrong several times about my car. Dad called back, having talked with two dealers and having had an actual computer with which to do internet reserach. He hadn’t found a definitive set of instructions for my, just something about tearing up my center console under the shifter and there being some way of bypassing some interlock mechanism. Right, cut up the shroud over my shifter with my Swiss Army knife and then figure it out. I decided to see if the dealer who’d promised to call Dad back would.

Waiting for auto dealer who never called back. Aka relaxing, which I hadn’t done for two days.

Around noon, it seemed like we’d exhausted the easy options and so I called the expensive tow truck company which, unlike AAA, will pick you up on forest roads.

An hour later the tow truck driver who, for their expensive hourly rate, was willing to pick me up and turned out to be a good conversationalist, drove me back to my car. The driver thought they knew how to fix the issue and, after popping off a panel which I didn’t think came loose, found a lever which let them get the car out of park. Having fixed my car instead of towing it, the driver then met me at a gas station where they instructed me to buy fuses and then told me to replace them without having the key in the ignition (oops). Now everything worked! Then, they only charged me for one hour, not the two they’d quoted. Maybe they calculated the likelihood of repeat business and gave me a loss leader. Either way, many thanks to Nick with Mountain Highway Towing.

How to bypass the brake interlock on a Saturn LW200.

And with that, I drove home, arriving in time for dinner.

All Pics

Stevens Pass to Deep Lake (August 22-23, 2020)

Paul invited me to join him on a three day trip from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass, probably for much the same reason I invited him to run the Issy Alps 100mi with me, the company would be nice but the car shuttle was necessary. I’ve done that trip several times and didn’t want to burn a vacation day so we settled on me shuttling from Snoqualmie to Stevens and hiking the first day with him to Deep Lake which I’ve been wanting to camp at in the summer after having camped there on snow earlier in the season. On Sunday, I’d hike back to the car.

Saturday, August 22

I pulled into the Snoqualmie Pass PCT trailhead about 5:20am. I got out to use the outhouse and found a thru-hiker sheltering under the short eves from the the misty rain which hadn’t been forecast. I’d camped a dozen yards away on my own thru-hike in 2016 and so we had an instant source of conversation. I mistook a headlamp coming up from the parking lot as Paul’s. It belonged to a trail runner going up to Kendall Katwalk, running the whole way, even uphill. Another woman appeared alongside her and for a moment, it was a fascinating contrast: the thru-hiker with his large pack who would only walk, two women who would be running the hills in minimal running vests, and me who would be trying to do something in between. The others went on their way and Paul showed up. We loaded his gear into my car and as the sky grew lighter, drove back to the greater Seattle area and then up to Stevens Pass.

About 8:15am we set off up the climb to the to ridge at the top of the Stevens Pass Ski Area’s west side. We passed several groups and I wondered if I’d see them on my way back the next day. Our pace was quick and light on the uphill and our legs felt strong as we flowed down the back side past the ski area boundary and several ponds. Our first stop was about two hours and 7 or 8 miles in at Mig Lake lake where I camped on my last night on this section in 2017. Paul connected with some fast packers who knew his land lady (“fast packing” is when you go backpacking but spend some of the time running instead of hiking – I’m unconvinced of the benefits but it feels good while you have energy).

Paul atop the first climb.

Miles fell away, the clouds burned off, we kept a running conversation even when walking the uphills. One big decision was whether to visit Surprise Lake. I talked Paul out of the extra thousand feet of descending only for a to climb back up to the PCT (and a lakeside meander – didn’t mention that). Maybe my thru-hiker mindset of “these miles don’t go to Canada” is too strong. You don’t get a good look at Surprise and Glacier lakes as you traverse their length in the trees above.

Approaching the divide between Trap Lake and Surprise Lake.
On the climb to Pipier Pass, you finally get a view of Glacier and Surprise Lakes which you’ve already passed.

Deception Lakes wound up being farther away than I expected. It’s funny how memory doesn’t map linearly onto reality. I’ve wanted to swim in the Deception Lakes every time I’ve passed them and so this time I did. Deep Lake is in a valley and we didn’t think there’d be enough direct sun to dry us if we swam at our destination. Paul’s approach to swimming is the one I used to have: jump in with your clothes on so they get clean too and then they keep you cool. The sensual freedom of swimming in the buff won me over last year so now I leave my clothes out on a rock to dry to a crisp which makes them feel clean even if they’re still encrusted with salt.

This section of the PCT is notable for a particular water crossing. Early in the season you have to cross multiple turbulent pools of frothing water. The depth and water pressure are hard to discern. The white water occludes secure footing, forcing you to probe with poles and feel with your feet among the uneven, slippery, and unsteady rocks. The cascade leaves little room to step up or downstream to catch your balance. At this point in the season, however, we could walk down the bank where the trail is cut and hop over the first branch of the stream, step over the second, and walk a log bridge over the third, all of which were shadows of their early season selves.

Paul crossing what turned out to be our last water source before Deep Lake.

The low water at such a notable water crossing might have hinted that the water might also be low at the next stream – which I judged to be the last guaranteed water source before Deep Lake. It was near a campsite which had been so boggy in 2017 that I’d only been able to set up at one of the several campsites. When we got to that stream, however, it was dry. Paul was out of water and I had a little under half a liter. We took a break and investigated some trail magic left in a bear can for PCT thru-hikers. Paul’s shoulders were hurting from having stuffed his fastpack to its limit. We split contents of my flaccid 500ml soft bottle, ate bars and potato chips, and headed up towards the shoulder of Cathedral Rock.

Cathedral Rock

Cathedral Rock is the prominent peak which stands apart from other peaks which appear as little more than slight rises above a connecting ridge. It was beautiful as the light started to loose its harsh brilliance after the heat of the day. I was walking behind Paul on this last upward effort. His foot placement wasn’t as crisp as the morning which I noted mostly because I get hyper-aware when low on water. After cresting the shoulder of Cathedral Rock, we walked the 2.5mi descent to Deep Lake, arriving just after 6:30pm and dranking deeply at it’s calm outlet stream which ran between a perfect line of stepping stones.

The last time I was here there were several feet of snow on the ground. It was nice to be able to relax in the relative warmth, though the high valley walls meant we didn’t have direct sunlight to keep off the chill from the cool air sinking into this high lake basin. We set up our tents, ate dinner, sat in the light hammock (an excellent “trail couch”) Paul had brought. I hadn’t brought enough insulation to stand around and so tucked into my quilt to watched color drain from the sky through my translucent tarp.

I was letting my mind drift when I heard a low, blunt, excited voice talking with Paul. I looked out from under my tarp and was introduced to Mike who Paul had met once before on a local, rugged hike. From the sound of it Mike had been considering pushing through the night and doing the entire Snoqualmie to Stevens section in one push but decided to camp with his very minimal gear so as to be able to see more of this beautiful swath of nature by daylight. Mike went to find a campsite and I put on an audiobook and drifted off to sleep.

Sunday, August 23

The sun was up but hadn’t crested the surrounding ridges when I woke up. It was brisk and I ate my cold soaked oatmeal with the last of the maple syrup I’d been gifted by Ross a few weeks ago. I packed up, optimizing for keeping my warm clothes on as long as possible instead of packing in the best order (important for a frameless pack). Paul was making breakfast as I wished him well on the rest of his trip south and headed back the way we’d come the day before.

Smooooooke on the water. Cathedral Peak is on the right but isn’t as striking from this side.

On the way down from Cathedral Rock, I saw some of the trail runners who Paul had connected with early the day before. They hadn’t made it to Deep Lake but camped at the waterless campsite which I’d though would have been our last water the day before. They’d gotten water from hikers headed in the other direction, who were just over a mile down hill to get more in the morning. It was the start of one of the day’s fun themes: seeing people I’d seen the day before.

Looking down the lush valley to Hyas Lake in bright mid-morning light.

The best connection, by far was when I overtook Mike. I stopped to talk but he said we should do a mile together and talk. In the same vein as in veno veritas I think there’s a in trail veritas. Our conversation ranged from swapping gear tips to the most positive, affirming discussion related to identity and values I’ve had in a long time. The one mile of conversation turned into about twenty and two rest stops (no swimming today) before we fell into the quiet which accompanies late-in-the-day sore legs.

Glacier Lake, Surprise Lake (barely visible). Baker is my best guess for the mountain in the distance.

The view from the top of Stevens Pass Ski Area is a special one since it’s a clear point before the final descent. While you can’t see much of the route you just walked, the view is grand enough to summarize everything you just experienced. We rested there a moment, reaping the reward of our hike, then dropped down the front side, flowing like water back to the car.

Mike (middle left) on the final switch back to the top of Stevens Pass Ski Area.

The trail forks just before it ends and I took the path which lead to the ski area not the parking lot. I’d picked up enough of a lead that Mike was out of sight and since I was giving him a ride home and he didn’t know what my car looked like, I was a bit worried that we’d have trouble reconnecting. Somehow he guessed which parking lot I was in and found me. Then, a man came over and asked if we had jumper cables so we helped jump a Prius. Many firsts for the day. The traffic was slow on the way home and since I hadn’t packed car snacks, we bought overpriced cans of Coke from a roadside vendor while the car ahead advanced less than 50 yards. The Dairy Queen we stopped at for milkshakes was poorly located and it took three tries to figure out how to get through the drive-in. Finally, I dropped Mike off and then made it home a little after sunset, just in time for a shower and an early bedtime. A fitting ending to a long day of walking.

All my pics

Mt Adams North Side (August 8-9, 2020)

I’d had a rough week and wanted an easy, fun hike to forget about life for a while. With plans to climb Mt Adams on Monday via the south climb, I decided to spend Saturday and Sunday on the north side. I hiked up from the Killen Creek Trailhead, turned west on the PCT, then keep going west to the Yakima Reservation. On a map the route is odd because the trail seems to end for no apparent reason and so has been an object of my curiosity for some time. Ultimately, I didn’t get that far because I came to a beautiful, watered wash and decided to call it early. On the way back Sunday morning, I visited the rich meadow at High Camp on the north side of Mt Adams and had lunch looking out to Mt. St. Helens. There were a number of riding groups out which I haven’t seen in other places. An odd discovery on this trip was that wearing roomy running shorts and supportive underwear (the new, and apparently key ingredient here) with a tight shirt and a well fitted minimal pack makes you feel damn sexy. Perhaps form is function when you’re in an escapist mood.

Horse riders were surprisingly common on the trails around Mt Adams.
If you see this cairn, go back, the proper trail crosses the stream lower. I wound up crossing on that snow patch.
Sunrise over the Yakima Reservation.
Hm…. which is taller, Mt Rainier, or this cairn?
Mt Adams glamor shot.

All pics

Dropping Off Ella (July 31 – August 2, 2020)

I was invited to join Ella, Clare, and Morgan on a hike to the Canadian Border to see Ella off on her attempt to set the fastest known self-supported hike of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was a remarkable trip best characterized as a party where the guests happened to walk 60 miles.

Friday

Driving up to Harts Pass with a full car had the feeling of a road trip. There was fast moving conversation, shallow and deep. Laughter. Dating advice. Everyone had brought enough snacks for everyone so of course, only the donuts got eaten. Pouring water from a wide mouth container to a small mouth container is difficult while traveling a high speeds.

From Harts Pass, we hiked in about seven miles along easy, beautiful single-track crossing lush hillsides. The Cascade peaks and ridges guarded the western horizon. August is prime hiking season and natural beauty was on full display.

It was all at least this pretty.

We set camp around an hour before sundown in a flat spot where, on my Anacortes Crossing – Castle Pass misadventure a group of female hikers had left a disheveled, depleted me with a distinct feeling that I wasn’t welcome (admittedly I shuffled past holding an ice axe like an axe murder). Much better company this time. Ella and Clare bivvied and so were eaten by mosquitoes. By the time Morgan had zipped up her tent, so many mosquitoes had gotten inside that she had to shake out their corpses in the morning. I my dining apparel was a rainsuit and headnet.

Saturday

Saturday was spent meandering along the well kept single-track of the PCT, taking inordinate numbers of pictures both of nature and of each other, and chatting about god knows what. The primary game became that we had to take a pictures of each subset of the four of us. The individual pictures were done as Hikertrash Vogue with Clare as photographer and Ella as Art Director.

Photographers photographing photographers photographing.

One high point of the day (certainly by elevation) was where we ate lunch. The trail had been easy and so we had full energy to enjoy it. I discovered that the beer cans I’d packed out (provided by Morgan, many thanks) had kept the night’s cool under the the insulating effects of the quilt where they’d sequestered themselves.

Not a bad lunch spot.

By about 5pm we’d meandered our way as far as the monument marking the northern terminus of the PCT at the Canadian border. The spot is small and not really level enough for good camping. Ross was expected to meet us there from the Canadian side but were weren’t quite sure if he’d show up (bets were taken), much less where he’d camp. Just as we were deciding on a cut-off time to eat dinner without him, Ross appeared in the little clearing. After an exultant round of salutations, he lead us off to a wonderful campsite less than a kilometer across the border. As we settled in for dinner, he produced a small container of maple syrup for each of us. My contribution to the evening was a previously unused decade old tube of DEET based purchased by my mother when I hiked a section of the PCT in 2010.

Ella just swallowed a fly.
We were all a little weirdly attracted to Morgan’s crocks & socks.

Sunday

The big day started just before 2am when Ella woke us up and we marched back to the border to see her off. After farewells, Ella took off uphill, over blowdowns, at a very brisk walk. We watched her headlamp twinkle like a fairy through the trees, zig-zagging upwards. It’s beam would illuminate the clear-cut along the border each time the switchback got close to it. Eventually the light disappeared and we went back to bed.

Think quick: you’re about to go for a 515mile FKT, what’s the most important thing? Even more pictures.

At 4:30am, my alarm went off. We had 30 miles back to the car and from there, five hours of driving. It didn’t have to be a hard day, but it had to be a long day. And it had to start now. Everyone was a good sport, taking food bars for breakfast on foot. I started to bid a potentially sleeping Ross adieu through his tent wall and he told me to stop because he’d get up and give us good by hugs.

We passed a south-bound thru-hiker starting their PCT hike. We ate breakfast where we’d lunched the day before and Morgan pointed out that I could mix Ross’s maple syrup into my oatmeal.

The trail home.

We tended to hike two together and one apart. We’d now been together long enough that it was nice to have some time alone. The day had a calmer feel, but there was an underlying tension thinking that Ella had walked this same dirt just hours before at a furious pace.

The closing miles were almost golden in the late afternoon sun. Clare racked up them up at speed, headphones in. Morgan and I took it easy. Her “big toe was eating her little toe” and had been for some time. We stopped to chat with a family inculcating a love of the outdoors into their late-elementary school age daughters and we did our best to talk up backpacking.

Clare was changed and ready to go by the time we got back to the car and ran down to us in blue dress reminiscent of The Sound of Music. There were still hours of daylight. We were footsore and happy to sit again. We took it all in and snacked. Ella had only been 60% done with her day’s miles when she’d passed the car. It was hard not to think of that.

Epilogue

I followed Ella’s tracker all week with what felt like the anxious tension of the closing minutes of a super bowl. It turns I was giving myself mild food poisoning with breakfast each morning which heightened the effect (maybe you can’t cook sausage in the microwave?). She kept on pace at about 50 miles and 10,000ft of gain per day over sections of trail which haven’t seen a trail crew this year. The day after reaching Stevens Pass, her tracker didn’t start, there was unexpected rain in the mountains, and I privately texted Ross a timeline for calling search and rescue. I needn’t have. A mutual friend who went out for a run that evening saw her descending from Kendall Katwalk. She made it to Snoqualmie Pass with 5 minutes before the gas station which held her resupply package closed.

Ella’s high spirits and playful nature hide a forceful will. Her FKT attempt ended at White Pass when she was unable to carry weight on one foot, having covered the last miles using hiking poles as crutches. From there she hitched home after having been passed by hikers who didn’t stop to help her. When I visited a few days later to drop off some belongings she’d left in my car, her leg was in a boot and, unable to walk, she would throw her keys out the window so people could let themselves up.

Some friends you keep because they show you a good time. Some friends you keep because they inspire and challenge you. Some friends you keep because they show you the terrifying, humbling price of truly finding your limits.

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Billy Goat Loop Fail (July 18-19, 2020)

If you look at a map of the North Cascades mountains east of North Cascades National Park, it’s hard not to notice how many trails there are. Every drainage seems to have one. The connect every which way, forming all manner of possible routes for a weekend (or longer) excursion. I’ve explored the mapped trails between Ross Lake and the PCT extensively and was curious if similarly grand, though perhaps less manicured, experiences were available just a few ridge lines east. As other plans for the weekend had fallen through, I decided to eat the 5hr drive to Billy Goat Trailhead on Friday night.

Trip reports were sparse, though I found one mentioning that the Hidden Lakes trail was clear. Another recently reported a successful “Billy Goat Loop” (not the route described here) but didn’t describe trail conditions. I decided to go outbound towards Sheep Mountain up the Larch Creek Trail with the whimsical goal of playing tag with Canada by visiting Border Lake and, after a connection via Bunker Hill for which I couldn’t find a trip report, Monument 85. Hopefully, the relatively level Hidden Lakes Trail would carry my back to my car early enough to be home before work on Monday. This seemed like it would put most physically demanding parts of the route for which I also had the least information, as early in the trip as possible. If things got tough, it would be easy to turn around. What I worry most about on any new loop is not being able to close the loop and having to hike out over half the distance after having used over half the time. If you hike enough, eventually, you get to face your fears.

Yellow (right) – Billy Goat & Larch Creek Trails – Excellent travel
Purple (right) – Park Pass & Border Lake Trails – Mixed quality
Red – Boundary Trail – Very difficult to follow in places
Purple (left) – Monument Trail – Northern part doesn’t really exist. Connection over Pasayten re-routed.
Orange – Hidden Lakes Trail (not maintained) – Disappears south of mapped intersection with Boundary Trail
Yellow (left) -Hidden Lakes Trail (maintained) – Intended return route. Couldn’t get there from Boundary Trail
Green – a route extension for a 3rd border touch – Didn’t attempt.

Friday, July 17 – Prologue

I pulled in to the Billy Goat Trailhead just after dusk, having beaten the estimated arrival time by half an hour. Doing 15 over on the highway when the speed limit is 60 doesn’t change your arrival time that much. Doing 15 over on a dirt road where 15 is the safe driving speed changes your arrival time a lot. I did slow down after a minor loss of traction.

My plan had been to camp near the trailhead so that I could pack up in the morning and be sure I wasn’t missing anything. At the end of the parking lot where there might have been campsites, there was a large tent, which looked like an MSR Hubba Hubba, and it was a shaking. I figured that if there was some hubba hubba going on in the Hubba Hubba, the tent occupants wouldn’t notice if I slipped by looking for a campsite further down the way. It turns out that the tent’s single occupant was just arranging a bulky air mattress while his friend cooked dinner. I introduced myself and wound up chatting with Noah and Milo. Noah had hiked down the Hidden Lakes Trail and knew it to be clear as far as the Tatoosh Trail intersection as of three weeks prior. He also knew that there wouldn’t be any snow which was a relief as I’d brought microspikes and an ice axe because of some large white patches on the low-res satellite imagery I’d studied in preparation for this trip. In the end, there weren’t any more flat spots so after hanging out for a while, I returned to my car for the night.

Noah (right) and Milo (left) gave me beta from their trips in the area.

Saturday, July 18

As I became conscious, laid out in the back of my station wagon, it was clear that while there were stars in the sky, the edge of the world was just beginning to get lighter. If I were at home, this would mean turning over and going back to sleep. For some reason, it’s just not easy to do that on a big hiking day. Maybe it’s because dawn and dusk are the best hours for hiking. Maybe it’s because air mattresses just aren’t as comfortable as spring mattresses with foam toppers. Either way, I fumbled around until I’d changed into hiking clothes, packed up my bag, and filled out a self-service trailhead permit. About a mile after starting up the hill, I realized I’d left my hiking poles at the car. Along with being useful hiking aids, I use them to set up my tarp at night and so the smart thing might have been to go back and get them. I hate hiking unintended miles and so I just kept on.

Billy Goat Pass and Three Fools Pass passed quickly as the sun rose slowly behind the eastern ridge line. Much of the area was an old burn and so the lack of direct sun was a blessing. The trail was well maintained and the rich ground cover made up for the spindly trees.

Billy Goat and Three Fools Passes have been burned but have gorgeous ground cover.

After Three Fools Pass, the trail descends to a stream where the Diamond Jack trail continues up valley. The Larch Creek Trail crosses the stream and after a quick jog west, heads north at an incline so shallow it feels flat. The East Fork Pasayten Trail splits off after you leave the burn area and are contouring along a densely treed slope. Looking up both Diamond Jack and East Fork Pasayten Trails, it’s clear that there Larch Creek Trail gets singled out for special treatment from trail crews.

About half way between Three Fools Pass and Larch Pass, I slipped on a rock and fell crossing a small stream, but in such a way that I didn’t get wet. It was one of those falls where you don’t get much of a chance to save yourself and I was fortunate to be wearing a backpack. On of my fingers tore slightly under the nail which, combined with hands swollen from not having anything to do (usually not a problem with poles), meant my hands were the source of most of my displeasure. On hiking trips, it’s usually feet and shoulders that hurt. I guess variety is the spice of life.

Larch Pass did have larches. It was about 11:10am and I took my first sit-down break there since starting at about 4:40am. I was making little voice recordings thinking I might post them and save myself the time writing a trip report. Usually they captured shallow, momentary thoughts. Just as I would finish recording, I’d think of something else I wish I’d recorded. For all their lack of narrative and detail, they capture some interesting impressions. At Larch Pass, I said that, “the mountains are soft and the trail is soft.” Thus far, the trail had been well maintained and not tightly compressed or rocky. The mountains tended to be round, like hills, not jagged and rocky like the classic pictures of the North Cascades. One side would have fallen off and form the head of a drainage but the other looked like a walk-up. The mountains were also generally covered in grass or dirt, perhaps with some amount of stones mixed in, but not edifices of rock. While I don’t know the geologic processes made these mountains, perhaps this softer shape is because I was on the east of the range and whatever tectonic, volcanic, or glacial forces created the North Cascades aren’t as strong here.

Larches at Larch Pass

The trail just after Larch Pass descended to a signed turn-off to McCall Basin. There was only the slightest hint of a trail at the turn-off, something that would soon become a theme of this trip. However, the meadow spreading down the basin and up to the turn-off for Corral Lake, was incredible. While I had intended to walk at whatever pace came to me and found that pace was much slower until Peeve Pass for all the pictures I took.

McCall Basin. Not what most people would call a trail.
Easy trail in beautiful surroundings. The colors were much more vibrant in person.
Looking south-ish above McCall Basin. Corral Lake Trail to the left.

Sand Ridge, which starts near the Corral Lake turn-off appears to have a trail up it which wasn’t on my map. The Larch Creek Trail runs through the bowl under the ridge and up to a point near the end of the ridge before dropping to Peeve Pass. If I’d been in a more exploratory mindset, I might have tried to see if it went since it would have provided sweeping views of the area. My voice recordings for the area use “awe” and “a whole lot of pretty” to describe it. There was a trail coming down off the ridge at the other end, so I expect that it goes.

Looking east over the meadow below Sand Ridge.
Looking north towards Sheep Mountain. The trail goes right, under the near knob, to Peeve Pass, then takes the Park Pass Trail on the west side of Sheep mountain. After a quick jaunt on the Border Trail, you’re in Canada.

Peeve Pass is one of those odd passes which you descend to instead of climb to. It’s been burned recently and while plants are beginning to come back, the ash on the surface makes digging a cat hole easy. I turned left for a short jaunt on the Boundary Trail to the Park Pass Trail. It’s a good thing that there’s a sign for the Park Pass Trail because, the trail itself isn’t really visible.

Do you see the Park Pass Trail? (purple trail on in the top-right of the map which opens this post)

I thought that this might stop my first attempt to tag Canada just short of the border. Fortunately, after walking a dozen or so yards, it’s pretty easy to see the cut of a trail in the earth where it crosses a streamlet. Usually, trails are distinct in color from the surrounding dirt but the fire made everything a uniform grey. While plants are a little less likely to grow on the trail, there were plenty of them coming up through the trail floor. When they grow up, they’ll obscure the subtle cut of the trail in the side of the hill and make it impossible to follow. While it’s easy enough to follow for now, I hope a trail crew gets there in the next few years before we lose the Park Pass Trail completely.

Near the start of the Park Pass Trail. Good luck following this once the plants fill in.

While the Park Pass Trail is still in good condition north of the fire scar, I was looking for the turn-off to the Border Lake Trail and if I hadn’t had a GPS, I wouldn’t have realized that I’d walked past it. There is a turn-off in the area but it leads a short distance to what must have been a camp full of discarded metal cans before the fire swept through. The terrain here is open and gentle and I could see what was probably a trail (and not just where water carved a trail-looking rut) and so walked to it. This turned out to be the Border Lake Trail which brought me to the border, then disappeared.

The clear-cut along the US/Canada border. Not a trail.

At this point, I was split about whether I really wanted to go to Border Lake. I’d tagged the border which was my primary objective and didn’t particularly care to climb a hill. Still, I’d gotten this far and wasn’t likely to do that again just to visit Border Lake so I took a bearing with the GPS and followed it to a low point on the ridge. A trail materialized just below the top. Just over the top, a lake materialized. The combination of gentle, open travel on one side and sudden drop-off on the other is quite dramatic, even if the features are slightly rounded.

Border Lake.

I ate lunch on the ridge above Border Lake. I’d brought hard boiled eggs and avocado and didn’t want to let these perishable, crushable, delicious foodstuffs stay in my backpack any longer than necessary. Unfortunately, I’d also been snacking heavily and so was significantly stuffed on the trip back to the Border Trail.

At elevation, chip bags expand. How do chip manufacturers distribute from stores at different elevations?

I hadn’t committed to a specific itinerary, knowing that it might be hard to predict trail quality and conditions. Feeling lethargic after a big lunch, I didn’t want to be ambitious, and decided to work my way at a comfortable pace as far as I felt like going.

The Border Trail clearly had receives less maintenance than the Larch Creek Trail but was easy enough to follow through meadows and burn areas. In some places it was very well maintained, in other places it was a relatively indistinct. There were several unmarked side trails which I mistook as the Quartz Lake Trail. Clearly, this area has more to offer than an official map would show.

An unmarked split in the trail. The spur trail doesn’t have an obvious destination (peak, camp, etc…)

The gem of the afternoon was a walk along a level section of trail high on the south side of Quartz Mountain. The views swept from west to east. The travel was through alpine meadow and few trees interfered with the view. The camera on my phone can’t zoom in on the rest of the Cascades which guarded the horizon with variations in color and form. The two words most immediately in my mind were “divine” and “sublime”.

A panoramic shot looking south from the amble along Quartz Mountain.

This slice of heaven ended abruptly, in classic Boundary Trail fashion, at an intersection where the trail forked. One forked looked grey and little used. The tan trail in good condition bent slightly uphill and disappeared within 10 feet at a cairn. Which to follow? The GPS said follow the cairns. It felt schizophrenic.

An abrupt end to an excellent trail. Instead of trying to continue left on a lesser trail, Boundary Trail follows cairns.

As the slope began to roll over, the trail picked up again and carried quickly down to stream where where the climb to Bunker Hill started. The fire damage early in the climb was significant. There were also a significant number of cut logs. The trail would have been very difficult to follow but for a significant presence of cairns which had been placed liberally and creatively to mark the way. Before a trail crew had cleared those logs, it might have been impossible to follow the trail as opposed to making your own way. Perhaps the significant quantity of blowdowns had been left for so long that the trail didn’t receive enough traffic to beat the plants back.

Looking back on a short climb where the trail disappeared under regrowth from a fire. The visible cairn marks the top of the climb.
A cut tree and a cairn. Double guidance!

I’d been moving slowly and breathing hard due to a heavy stomach from a late lunch. Attaining the top of the ridge which climbed slowly to Bunker Hill took much more effort than the map would have implied. The dramatic views last seen on Quartz Mountain returned along with a clear trail and I was relieved.

It was now a little before 7pm and I’d considered the top of Bunker Hill as a potential place to stop for the night. The views wouldn’t hurt and there were several campsites sheltered in small stands of trees. Four cement blocks with what looked like metal axles were on the east side of the summit which makes me wonder about the history of the area. Perhaps they were footings for a fire watch?

Cement blocks with iron axles. History unknown.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t been thinking ahead and was down to a little less than a half liter of water which would not have been enough for dinner, much less the night. There were two hours of daylight and a little less than 6 miles down to the Pasayten River. While good campsites may appear in the most unlikely places, the map showed only one area which appeared to flatten out. The route seemed to mostly follow the nose of a ridge and so it seemed unlikely to have water until the Pasayten. Six downhill miles in two hours with the motivation of waning daylight would be clearly doable on a normal trail but the Boundary Trail seemed to appear and disappear as it pleased. Also, the front of my left-leg just above the ankle had be aching when stepping downhill. If the sun went down, following it might be very difficult to figure out where to go. Camping on the top of Bunker Hill would have been and been a pleasant experience but with so much daylight, it seemed better to try to do something about the water situation. The trail ran above what the map showed as a seasonal stream and so perhaps there’d be water there. If I got to the flat area without finding water, I decided that I would camp and not risk losing my way in the dark. Decision made, I stood up with the grace of a rusty robot and continued on.

There’s are two routes down from Bunker Hill. On my map, there’s a climbers route marked in small dots on which comes up from the south. It follows a long, broad, soft ridge rising up from the valley which I’d seen on on my approach. It looked enticing, though maps show things getting more complicated below the treeline and that’s what I was hoping to avoid. My intended route followed a different ridge west along the official Boundary Trail and is marked in a bold line. In a classic case of the map not matching the ground, the climbers route was a deep, double rutted line and the main route was invisible where it turned off, marked only by a cairn.

“Sketchy climber’s route” goes straight. “Official Boundary Trail” turns right. An arrow made of sticks and cairns mark the turnoff because there is no trail.

At the point where the main trail turns invisibly off the secondary route, the ridge to the east began forming and on it were several patches of snow. Above the patches of snow were sheltered campsites. I’d brought a stove on this trip and so had everything I wanted: water, a sheltered camp, and a beautiful view. While there was more daylight, I’d logged 14+ hours on my feet and my left leg was hurting in in a “repetitive stress injury” way not a “tired and sore” kind of way. More miles might make tomorrow easier but they weren’t going to improve the situation now so I put down my pack. Camp routine followed: I melted water, cleaned my feet, ate dinner, tied my tarp up between a few trees, enjoyed the sunset, then crawled under my tarp and neslted into my bug bivvy and under my quilt.

Tied the ridge off to trees because I forgot my poles. Pitched close to the tree on the right for better wind protection.
Looking west from Bunker Hill at sundown.

Sunday, July 19

I slept well and woke easily at the first hint of light. The morning was dry and warm. This made packing up so much easier than when dew or frost makes everything damp and sloppy while your fingers hurt when you need them to be dexterous. By 4:30am I was following cairns across a broad slope by headlamp. At one point I felt the hoof-falls of a herd of deer through the soil of the ridge as they galloped away, just smudges in the dark at the edge of a clearing. As the edge of the sky turned the color of egg yolk, I picked up a trail again.

The trail ran downhill steeply at first, then shallowly across the drainage under the ridge where I’d camped. There was a stream here and an established campsite. It was comforting knowing that I’ve have had a good situation the night before, even if I hadn’t made the decision to camp where I did.

After that, the trail began degrading. There was a critical left turn onto the ridge which sloped to the Pasayten which I almost missed. I did miss a turn which happened just where a large log had fallen, making it look as though the trail continued underneath. For a while I wandered in an open forest of blowdowns and snags, generally following my GPS until suddenly a section of trail reappeared.

The trail is degrading but still pretty easy to follow. The blowdowns are so thick that one fell on top of a previously cleared log.
The trail here is more imaginary than real. Go where you think it leads and hope to find confirmation.

Eventually, signs of the trail became faint again and at a critical moment, I was unable to find another cairn in my direction of travel. On the GPS, the trail took a hard left down a narrow, steep gulley then began to traverse a steep hillside. I’d seen a few places where there might have been trails diving over the side and I could see what might have been scuffs in the dirt from people (or deer). Nothing was clear but the GPS really did seem to indicate that you turned off the gently sloping ridge here, only to meet back up with it later. I’d have been better served by just following the ridge.

The gulley was very steep but mostly grass covered which made for more solid footing. I slipped twice where bare dirt slid under foot from the angle. I naturally lean back away from perceived danger which reduces traction and makes me more likely to slip. Trees were frequent companions which I used to steady myself. I couldn’t quite stay on the line the GPS indicated and decided to find the easiest way and meet back up with it later. As the the trail on the GPS’s map began to travel across the slop and not just down it, I was very glad to have brought stiff shoes intended for kicking steps in snow as they held better for the steep traverse.

Eventually I came to look across a dip where the trail was supposed to cross and contour below a small knob. I saw what might have been a hint of the scar of a trail on the knob but it didn’t seem to come from anywhere or go to anything. I have plenty of experience chasing lines in the dirt which turn out not to be trails and so ignored it. The GPS showed me as being below the trail and so I planned to walk along a bench of sorts and wait for the trail to come down to me. Some deadfall pushed me up a dozen feet or so onto the knob and… I saw a cut log. Looking along the path it indicated, I could see trail. This was a most welcome surprise. Measuring on a map now, I looks like I was off trail for a little over half a mile.

Found the trail again. The

The trail from here was easy to follow. One of the advantages of it cutting across a slope is that you know it probably won’t go to the right or left very far. There were some blowdowns and eventually the trail degraded under wetter conditions as it switch backed down to a water crossing. I was actually quite happy that the water crossing wasn’t overgrown or excessively muddy. The trail just climbed out and contoured out of the drainage.

This brought me to an unexpected, unwelcome, and foreboding sign. It was a three-way intersection between the Hidden Lakes Trail (Not Maintained) and Boundary Trail Re-Route, but was about a mile earlier than expected, apparently because the Boundary Trail had been re-routed. I was expecting to cross the Pasayten River near the site of the Pasayten Cabin and then turn north on the Monument Trail to tag the Canadian border again. Would this re-route connect? What did it mean that the Hidden Lakes Trail was not maintained, especially given the poor state of the Boundary Trail which apparently was maintained. The Hidden Lakes Trail was supposed to be my route home.

What I probably should have done at this point, was to try and take the Hidden Lakes Trail back to my car. If it didn’t go, then I’d learn that as soon as possible and so would have as much time go retrace my steps the long way I’d already come. I considered the option but, the sun hadn’t yet crested the mountains and the Hidden Lakes Trail seemed like it should run a pretty clear course along the Pasayten River. I’d worked my way past so many blowdowns that it didn’t seem like it could be much worse. Maybe the Not Maintained was just a warning because it was a more popular trail and the rangers were trying to scare less experienced hikers. I turned onto the Boundary Trail Re-Route and hoped for the based.

The Boundary Trail Re-Route brought me quickly to the Pasayten which might have been difficult to cross given that we’d had a cold spring and the snowpack was still melting. However, the ford was well chosen and after grabbing a pair of sticks to substitute for the hiking poles I’d forgotten in my car, I crossed and found that the water went only just above my knees and didn’t press hard.

A well chosen crossing.

The trail from here wound its way to the edge of a bank of earth and climbed out. I guess this bank represents how wide the Pasayten gets at flood stage or some previous course it had taken. The trail was clear and turned south on top of the bank. I took that left turn and walked for several minutes expecting to find an intersection with the Monument Trail to take me the 1.5 or so miles to the border. Not finding an intersection, I checked the GPS and discovered that I was on the Monument Trail. Retracing my steps to the point where I’d the Boundary Trail Re-Route had climbed the bank, I was stymied that there was no indication of a northbound trail.

The Monument Trail where it intersects with the Boundary Trail Re-route. This was taken after I’d come back on the Monument Trail and knew where to look for it.

I wanted that to tag the border and expecting that a trail might pick up if I persevered just a little bit, I picked the most promising looking line through the grass and followed it, pushing my way through closely packed trees. As I was about to give up, I discovered an old, degrading trail! I followed this north feeling very satisfied with myself. Unfortunately, it too quickly degraded and I found myself making forward progress by walking on blowdowns and taking hints from cut logs which indicated old trial maintenance. Eventually, I looked around and saw nothing but fields of blowdowns. Previously, the hints of a trail had followed an embankment but as that degraded, there was no guidance as to where to go other than to follow a bearing due north. I was here for a hike, not a bushwhack and given the concerns I had about the Hidden Lakes Trail, I didn’t want to burn precious time. I turned around and worked my way back, getting lost in the process and having to use my GPS to get back on course.

The spot where I gave up on my bid to reach Monument 85.

Back on the Boundary Trail Re-route, I cruised south for a mile or so to the point where a trail on both my map and GPS crossed the Pasayten. The Boundary Trail in this area had been hacked through a forest of blowdowns and while this made it a very clear trail to follow, it also made it very clear where there was not a a turn-off. There was no side-trail, connector, spur, or other indication of trail where the GPS said there would be a way over to the Pasayten Cabin (apparently now burned down) and then across the river to the Hidden Lakes Trail. I jumped up on a log at the top of another embankment, looked across the river valley, and saw only fields of blowdowns. Stymied for a second time, I walked quickly back, crossed the Pasayten at the re-route and took the Hidden Lakes Trail, making a voice note that I really needed this to go otherwise it would be a very long day.

The Hidden Lakes Trail, while clearly not maintained, was easy to follow, certainly compared with the descent from Bunker Hill. There were some blowdowns and the trail was narrow here, overgrown there, or eroding off a slope in another place, but there was never a question of where it went. Then, just south of where the GPS indicated an intersection with the trail which crossed the Pasayten, the one I’d failed to find on the west side of the Pasayten, the Hidden Lakes Trail descended to the river level and disappeared into grass, blowdowns, and moderate trees. I pushed forward several dozen yards but nothing materialized. I climbed back up to where it had contoured above the river valley and couldn’t see anything which looked like a trail.

From here it was about 5.5 mi to where I had assurances that the Hidden Lakes Trail had been cleared. Bushwhacking in a river valley has been as slow as 0.5mi/hr for me. It was now after 9am and I didn’t want to risk 11hrs of hard travel. The brutal calculus was now that it was much more of a sure thing to return the approximately 30 miles by which I’d come. This was helped by the fact that I thought there were only 5,000 or 6,000 ft of elevation gain which felt like a big effort but not unreasonable. Looking now on Caltopo it appears to be more like 10,000ft of gain which is a very big day no matter how you cut it. While frustrating and anxiety inducing, I’d realized this was a possibility and so the decision was quick to make. I turned around felt a fresh purpose in my stride. Then, just after rejoining the Boundary Trail, I saw a well built, weathered man with an unusual backpack (clearly not from a common backpack vendor), coming towards me. It was around 10:20am and I hadn’t seen a sign of humanity since passing some tents the previous morning. On the Boundary Trail, I’d only been able to discern a single other pair of footprints in the mud.

The only other person enough to be on the Boundary Trail this weekend.

As we approached each other, I asked the man if he had come in by the Hidden Lakes Trail and happened to be on his way out, hoping desperately that I might follow him along some easy way which I had failed to discern. In describing his route, he explained that he’d come in on the Boundary Trail and not known about the re-route. When he got the the non-existent turn-off, he’d used his GPS (something he uses rarely), to bushwhack across the boggy fields of blowdowns to the old bridge. The bridge is out and he showed me a picture of the footings. He mentioned finding a three-way intersection and some flagging which hinted that the Hidden Lakes Trail might be more real than I’d determined. The going had been very difficult and he’d gotten a pair of gloves from a horse packer at his destination to protect his hands on the way back.

As the conversation continued, it turned out that we’d both hiked the PCT. He said his trail name was Bink, which I recognized but couldn’t place and I told him that I’d been DQ. He mentioned having hiked the PCT several times and having had the speed record before Heather Anderson. I was floored. I was trying to figure out who’d had that record between Scott Williamson and Heather Anderson, and a dumbfound look must have given me away. “Scott Williamson” he said. Oh, I thought. “I’m Isaac” I said and tried not to look too star struck. I’d heard Scott’s name a number of times in the long trail community and read about him in The Pursuit of Endurance. I remembered him being portrayed as a private person, so tried to make some conversational opening whereby it would be appropriate for him to leave if he wanted, but he stayed, smiling a wide smile and throwing his head back at points of common understanding. I asked about how the PCT had changed over the years. We wound up trading beta on trails near the Canyon Creek Trailhead just east of Olympic National Park. His memory was fantastic and he pulled out maps to show me notes he’d made, sometimes as long as 10 years before.

As the conversation wound down, he double-checked that my plan was to hike out a 30 mile day via the Boundary Trail. I explained that at this point, I needed a sure thing and wasn’t willing to risk that I might have to do 5.5 miles of the bushwhacking through terrain similar to what he’d had to do when he crossed the Pasayten. We commiserated over the state of the Boundary Trail, and he remembered that the Park Pass Trail hadn’t been visible from the turn-off. It was validating when someone who I respected for their athletic ability and grit thought I was a little crazy too. He ended by asking if I had enough food and wishing me well on my way trip back to the car.

Scott’s maps with handwritten notes from his previous trips. Some were 10 years old and very well cared for.

Shortly after parting ways, I crossed the last stream for several miles until the drainage below the summit of Bunker Hill. I checked that I had sufficient water by pressing up on my water bottle in its pocket and feeling how heavy it was. It felt full so I continued without drawing water. When I pulled it out for a first drink, it had about four mouthfuls. The mindgames and bodily awareness which happen when you’re worried about water are fascinating. I monitored every bead of sweat, how quickly my clothes dried, how cool the sweat made me feel, how thirsty I felt, and on and on. This was eventually mixed with finding my way up the trail which had eluded me on the way down. Following it in full sunlight helped, though several times I had to stop, look around, and retrace a few steps before determining which way to go. It was in this section where my my climbing muscles ran out of free vert (“free vert” is related to an odd effect where my legs hit a point where they rapidly go from feeling strong to weak; once weak they never return to strong for the rest of the day as though my “free vertical gain” had been spent I’d have to do real work for any remaining uphill travel). While the burned out snags did little to provide shade, they allowed me to see the top of Bunker Hill from a distance and monitor my progress with precision.

When I finally came to a little stream in the bowl under the summit, it felt like salvation. I rested heavily and drank a lot of water, initially in small sips. Having been out of water had made me lose objectivity about my condition and it was a little concerning to have a second measure of exhaustion tell me that I’d been quite depleted. I ate a light lunch, remembering how hard it had been after an oversized lunch they day before. In addition to stopping for a conversation, I had not made quick progress uphill. My left leg was now bugging me, even on the uphills. It was about 1:40pm when I left and I made it a goal to be back at Peeve Pass and the easy travel of the Larch Creek Trail by 5pm, something which seemed like an easy goal under normal conditions and I secretly hoped to make it by 4pm.

Salvation from thirst and anxiety.

The trip back over Bunker Hill and Quartz Mountain were beautiful but the need for constant progress was in the back of my mind and I tried to take fewer pictures. Still, the flowers were out and I noticed some things I hadn’t before. On the beautiful traverse behind Quartz Mountain I sat down and had something of a pity party while I released my left leg from the ache it felt on every step. If I hadn’t forgotten poles, I could have managed my leg better. However, when hikes stop being fun for me, it’s usually something external to the route or conditions, something about expectations. In this case, as was the case on the Hayduke before I let myself skip a section, adversity had extended the trip and the need to be back to my employer at an appointed time weighed heavily on me. My calculated finish time for the day swung between 11pm and 4am. Then there would be a 5hr drive home which would have be salted with just enough naps to safely operate a vehicle. If this had been an open-ended thru-hike, I might have just stopped for the night to prevent further injury and revel longer in the natural beauty. I checked the time. In two minutes it would be 4pm, the pre-determined end-time of my rest stop. Pity parties are useful when you need to accept your fate and the rest noticeably improved the ache in my left leg but progress was the medicine I needed and those two minutes meant I could get a head start.

How did I not notice this on the way out?

I reached Peeve Pass ahead of time at 4:50pm (goal of 5pm) but still feeling slow because I was so close to a low-ball goal. Turning on to the well kept Larch Creek trail was an emotional relief because I didn’t feel subject to the vagaries of trail condition. There were five climbs between me and my car. The new goal was to finish the first three before sunset. This wound up being easy since my leg stopped hurting on uphills and the first three climbs were relatively close. Since I wasn’t moving fast and was at peace with my fate, I got to enjoy the same country which brought the words, “awe” and “whole lot of pretty” to mind on the way out, but was now improved by the light of golden hour.

The big things were pretty.
The little things were pretty.

The descent southbound from Larch Pass was long and despite being gently graded, aggravating to my left leg which I was now processing as pain, not just soreness or ache. I tried to run at a shuffling pace as that keeps my foot in a more consistently flexed position instead of flexing and unflexing as with a walking stride. This worked for a bit then became slower than walking, so I alternated between walking to recover energy until I wanted to shuffle along again to reduce ache.

My mind was wrapped up in this back and forth and projecting finish times when I heard, “Isaac” shouted after me. I shuffle-ran back a few dozen yards and found Noah and Milo, the friends I’d met on the night before starting this fiasco. Since I was going to have a late finish anyways, really wanted a break, and knew that conversation would help my mental state, I sat with them for 10 or 20 minutes and traded stories from our weekend. It sounded like they’d gone up the trail I’d seen ascending Sand Ridge and had gotten the same sweeping views I’d seen when traversing along Quartz Mountain. They didn’t keep me long but I moved on with spirits much improved.

My immediate goals were now to get to the turn-off for Dollar Watch Pass before sundown and to find a place to poop which would make the chore as quick and easy as possible. I succeeded on both counts.

Night came at the stream from which the trail climbs to Three Fools Pass. I’d stopped to draw water, to refill the snack pockets on my pack, and to put on my headlamp. Without being able to see much outside the headlamp, I found myself taking the climb slow since I couldn’t gauge how much distance was left. My leg didn’t hurt and my mind entertained flights of fancy. It was pleasant and peaceful and I was working through the last 6.3 miles.

The final descent from Billy Goat Pass was very trying. Despite being 1.8 miles and downhill, I stopped twice to sit down. I was having to brace for the pain on each left footfall and was trying not to slip into guarding behavior or bad form. Additionally, the soles of my feet were both aching from pressure and the lacerating feeling of the fine fibers of my socks being mashed into them like a net made of cheese wire. I think this was due to having picked control-oriented shoes with thin, stiff soles and almost no padding. They would have been a good choice if there’d been snow but now they left me wanting the shoes which I’ve come to think of as trail slippers.

I reached my car at 12:37am and was oddly controlled, arranging my gear for the drive while standing instead of immediately collapsing into a seat. While relieved that the worst was now over, this seemed oddly like an aid station in a long race. The next leg would be the drive home and after that a day of work. Somewhere in there, I’d need to sleep. A key detail was to put my socks in a plastic bag where they couldn’t stink up the car. Unfortunately shoes were too large to fit and my feet would have felt horrible in plastic so I let them dry for a time before coming to terms with the level of stench I’d be living in until I got home. As I pulled out of the trailhead, the balls of my feet hurt enough from using the brake that I let the dirt road carry me away at the fastest speed I could rationalize as safe. The long anticipated caffienated soda was ineffective and just a few miles later, my head began to swim with sleep. I pulled over, leaned back my seat, laid my quilt over me, and passed out.

July 20, 2020 – Epilogue

It took three naps to get home. The longest was when I pulled off at the Canyon Creek Trailhead after having watched the sun rise over the North Cascades.

When I reached cell phone service, my phone exploded with the contents of the busy weekend I’d missed and I tried to reply to the time sensitive ones and let my emergency contacts know I was safe. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to tell the not to expect to me until Monday morning.

I pulled into my parking spot around 9:40am and managed to be showered and working from home by 10am. Late, but not usually so in the software industry.

It was about two days before I was walking normally and had to back out of a trip to the Enchantments the following weekend to let my leg rest. Since running doesn’t hurt it as much, I ran 12 miles to officially finish the GVRAT on the same day as my mother. This probably set the recovery back but some things in life are important.

Finally, a big thanks to Noah, Milo, and Scott for their conversations on this misadventure. I didn’t give any of you this blog’s URL, but if any of you happen to find this please know that your brief companionship was a significant boon to my spirits in a rough moment. I hope to see you out there again some time.

What’s the Best Wetsuit to Hike In? (July 11, 2020)

I started this blog during my first thru-hike so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself for both friends and family. As there’s more to life than thru-hiking, I eventually decided to preserve memories of overnight backpacking trips here as well. Today we take the next step in this blog’s devolution: day-hikes, gear-reviews, and guest posts.

My earliest distinct memory of Michael was that we both attended an annual backpacking trip to the Olympic Coast arranged by our then church group. Much has since changed for both of us. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why we never drifted apart. Perhaps it’s for the same reason that last weekend we could be found walking through the local mountains in wetsuits with drybags on our backs. I’ll let him tell you about that.


Hi, my name is Michael Moshofsky and I am honored to be the first guest to author a post on IsaacTakesAHike. Isaac and I have been friends going on 7+ years and during that time we have experienced a number of adventures together.

One of my favorite memories was when Isaac almost ran me over with his car… During the winter before Isaac hiked the PCT, he wanted to gain some experience hiking a snowy trail during a rainstorm. He is always prepared! Well, his usual hiking friends were smart enough to check the weather and didn’t agree to join. I was dumb enough to not check the weather until the morning of the trip and was already committed. Anyway, Isaac’s car got stuck in the snow, so I volunteered to get out and push. I walked to the front of the car and started pushing. The plan was for Isaac to gun it in reverse to get us out of the snowy ditch that we were stuck in. It turns out he was mistakenly in “Drive” rather than “Reverse”. I survived and have been on many adventures with Isaac since!

For our latest adventure, Isaac and I decided to hike ~13 miles and swim 5 alpine lakes along the way. This was inspired by some of Isaac’s friends, Ella and Claire, who thru-swam the Enchantments last year [Ella’s write-up]. Isaac and I are also training for the Panama City Ironman coming this November, so we wanted to find a fun way to get some much needed swim training in.

The adventure started with an audible given road closures, but we quickly got hiking after starting our departure from the Denny Creek Trailhead. Our first alpine lake, Melakwa Lake, arrived just 4 miles later. We proceeded to put on our wetsuits at the water’s edge with campers watching in horror. It wasn’t even 9 am yet. The water was cold. Snow still lined some sides of the lake. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get in. The cold hurt, but I did conquer my fear after being inspired by some heckling onlookers.

Sleeves make wetsuits much harder to put on. Doesn’t Isaac look awkward?

This is where our first wetsuit question occurred: sleeves verses no sleeves? My wetsuit was purchased primarily for use during triathlons. For that use case, I prefer sleeveless. In this situation, having sleeves is much more desirable.

We were also faced with a second question: thickness? In terms of warmth, thickness is to be desired. However, I had a much easier time both storing the wetsuit and taking it on/off. During the hike we thought this was due to it being thinner. It turns out Isaac’s was 4/3mm and mine was 5/3mm. It was probably lack of sleeves, capri length legs, and a longer zipper which made my transitions faster.

Isaac in Melakwa Lake. Despite it being summer, it was too cold to put our heads in.

After a short (~100 yards), but chilly, swim. We were faced with our next dilemma: to hike in the wetsuit or to transition back to normal hiking attire? I chose to wear my wetsuit with the top folded down in front and a t-shirt on. Isaac transitioned back to normal clothes, strapping the wetsuit to the outside of his bag. My reasoning for wearing the bottoms was that it would give me a chance to experience hiking in something similar to woman’s yoga pants without the funny looks. Though, I still received some confused and funny stares from hikers along the way…

Hiking with a wetsuit top off.
Drybag-backpack with Isaac’s wetsuit folded up under the exterior shock cord loops.

From this experiment, we learned that your socks and shoes get much wetter when hiking in your wetsuit.

Our second lake was Lower Tuscohatchie Lake. The water was much warmer and we swam 600+ yards. Afterwards, it was a longer trek to our next destination, so I opted to transition back into my normal hiking clothes. We were reminded that after summits the best views are from the center of lakes. Unfortunately, neither one of us was brave enough to risk dropping our phone to snap pictures mid-swim.

Our third lake was Pratt Lake. It would be our first lake where we would be required to pull our gear in our bags while swimming. We were prepared. We both brought the drysack-backpack that we received as a part of the Victoria Ironman 70.3 from 2019 – another one of Isaac and my previous adventures. The bags worked flawlessly. They were so buoyant that seal was hardly tested because it remained above the water line. Note, we cleverly used the backpack straps as a waist harness and trail line: one strap went around our waists while the other was used to attach to the trailing bag. Another tip, bring a plastic bag for your muddy shoes. I had one while Isaac was left with a muddy bag interior. Pratt lake added about 700 more yards to our ledger.

Muddy shoes. Bring a plastic bag so that mud doesn’t get in your drybag during the swim.
Towing a drybag while swimming point-to-point across Pratt Lake. No, we didn’t swim north, this was posed.

Isaac used a second drybag inside his drybag-backpack. It wasn’t needed, but I recommend this strategy and will steal it in the future myself.

Russian nesting drybags.

After Pratt Lake, we both changed out of our wetsuits for the hike up to a ridge along a mountain and into a new drainage. At our fourth lake, Rainbow, we met an extremely nice couple who graciously let us use their campsite as a launching pad into the lake. We swapped some hiking stories given that they had just run across a black bear the previous day. Rainbow Lake was a short 50 yard swim. Together, we decided to hoof it to our fifth and final lake in our wetsuits. Isaac went all out and wore the entire thing from ankle to wrist.

Hiking in a wetsuit – not generally recommended.

We determined this strategy was not so pleasant for the groinal region and do not recommend others try it. Also, this is where the wetsuit’s thickness works against you as your body starts to overheat.

When we arrived at our final lake, Mason, we were greeted with a full audience given the popularity of the destination. All of the campsites near the water were full, so we were forced to put into the water next to a group of tents and hammocks. A confused onlooker unzipped their hammock to the two of us standing a few feet away in wetsuits. We again pulled our drybag-backpacks behind us to one-way swim the lake. We exited the water at a hidden and unoccupied campsite- the best camping location at Mason lake. Isaac knew about this campsite because he had discovered it while swimming on a previous trip. You really only know that it exists if you adventure by water. Mason lake added another 250 yards rounding the day out at a total of 1,700 yards (or about a mile). Note, that it was a mile swimming the more difficult “heads-up” versions of freestyle and breaststroke given it was too cold to put our heads in the water.

So what is the best wetsuit for hiking? If you aren’t asking this question, you’re missing all the fun!

Desolation Double (July 3-4, 2020)

The Desolation Double is a trip up the East Bank Trail and Lightning Creek Trails along Ross Lake in the North Cascades up to the Canadian border (~32mi) and back. The reason it’s not called the East Bank Out-and-back is because you summit Desolation Peak at 6086ft (~10mi) going both ways. If you’re doing the official Desolation Double as an Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge, you’re supposed to read a book by Jack Kerouac because he spent time in the fire lookout on top of Desolation Peak. I tried to do that once it wasn’t worth doing again.

My introduction to the East Bank and Lightning Creek Trails was in summer 2018, when testing my legs after ACL surgery. I did an out and back to Canada, the knee held together, and my hiking ambitions took flight. A few weeks later, my friend Ella and I failed the Desolation Double after bivvying with insufficient gear on Desolation Peak’s false summit in unexpectedly bad weather. The southern part of the route overlaps the western side of the Devil’s Dome Loop, which I’d done in 2017 as a last hike before ACL surgery, and was part of my Anacortes Crossing – Castle Pass Loop trip in 2019. So, really, this adventure wasn’t about getting out and enjoying nature because I’d enjoyed this particular bit of nature quite a lot. Memories, however, are worth revisiting, particularly when done with friends on a ridiculous, arbitrary adventure of our choosing. Technically what happened is that Ella wanted a training route and the Desolation Double matched the distance, grade, and elevation of the route for which she was training. I was invited and it turns out I’m a “yes” man for this kind of thing.

Thursday, July 2 – Prelude

I picked up Ella after work. There had been some negotiation over timing largely based on what we thought our employers would accommodate. One way or another, the goal was to get to Canyon Creek Trailhead in time to have a relaxed evening and go to bed early. Friday morning would come early (for me at least, apparently Ella did 4am wake-ups for years).

Canyon Creek TH was a strategic basecamp. Our journey would be largely within North Cascades National Park which requires permits for camping and parking. Permits require showing up the day before your a trip or wasting several hours on the morning of the trip. Given current events, it would seem apropos to analyze the privilege this requires to do long weekend trips in national parks. Since we weren’t getting away from work early enough to get a permit on Thursday night, we chose to stay just east of North Cascades National Park on USFS land. This would add three miles of walking to get to the East Bank TH where the Desolation Double starts. Unfortunately, the bridge across the creek at Canyon Creek TH was out so those three miles would be road walk.

The drive to Canyon Creek TH was a little under three hours and we pulled in around 8pm. Despite it being Independence Day weekend, we had the place to ourselves. To underscore how unexpected that is I have to point out that this is one of the most popular weekends of the year for camping and the campsites here are about 15 yards from the parking lot and 5-10 from a sizeable creek. We’d eaten on the drive to avoid the time pressure of having to cook in camp, so I set up my backpacking hammock (which took several attempts as I’m not good with knots), Ella set up her tent and we were done. Camp was seemed strangely empty without more gear strewn around. At some point Ella said she’d tried to lying in my hammock and it made her sick. Fortunately, she suppressed the desire to vomit and got out. With nothing else to do, we stood by the creek. We were silent except for rare observations like how difficult it was to keep your eyes in one place as the mid-stream turbulence flowed past. Your eyes would always try to follow it. The rushing noise of the water acted as something of a sensory deprivation tank. You didn’t notice anything or perceive anything except the water. The light faded. I turned in. Ella took a seat by the stream.

Eleanor, my 2001 Saturn station wagon, in all her glory. Despite it being July 4th weekend the parking lot was empty.

Friday, July 3

I thought wake-up time was 4am but I woke up to Ella’s voice calling through the fabric walls of my hammock that it was 3:40am. Sleeping near a stream is always peaceful. Fortunately waking up was too.

Packing up didn’t take long for me since I was just bringing a running vest. Ella wanted to use the trip as a training for an ambitious upcoming endeavor and so she carried my quilt, sleeping pad, and pillow to add weight to her pack. The idea was that we’d meet Ross at the border and he’d have shelter for me. I thought the backup plans was to squeeze into Ella’s tent if Ross didn’t show. Bringing anything for me was hedge against Ross not showing because he could have provided my sleeping arrangements in full. As we realized later, there had been a miscommunication and Ella had only brought her bivvy. Ross would have to be there.

Breakfast was brownies my mother had sent as part of a care package after I ran my first 100 miler. This is something of a callback to 2016 when my mother gave away so many brownies to PCT hikers, including Ella, that people would run into me and say, “Oh you’re DQ? Your mom is wonderful. She makes great brownies”. Just to be clear my mom’s brownies are made with Ghiradelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix and love. This is aught to be the definition of “special brownies”. I’ve made brownies with Ghiradelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix and they just weren’t the same.

Breakfast of champions.

The three mile road walk from Canyon Creek TH to East Bank TH was a breeze. It was light enough that I didn’t turn on my headlamp and so forgot about it. The road seemed downhill which made me think that it might be a bit annoying to end a long trip with an uphill. Oddly, when I would come back this way at a run to finish the trip, it would seem downhill as well.

A remake of our starting photo from 2 years before in which I first realized Ella is taller than me.

From the trailhead, we just followed East Bank Trail, chatting the whole way. The greenery was luscious, the trail was easy, and we kept a good pace for the 16ish miles to the base of Desolation Peak. The East Bank Trail’s most defining attribute is how unmemorable it is. This creates an effect where you always, always, always underestimate the time it takes to get anywhere. The effect is compounded when you’re talking since you’re less engaged with the trail.

The two bridges south of Desolation Peak are probably the most notable points of interest on the East Bank Trail.

The turn-off up Desolation Peak is a little complicated because of how the trails intersect and wrap around the mountain. We made the same wrong turn as we did last time, but at least we were quick to recognize it. Also, it helped that it wasn’t dark. The hike up Desolation peak is something like 4.7mi long and 4200ft of vertical gain. However, it starts with a long flat section so the climb is compressed. We passed a old man and young man hiking together with some of the largest packs I’ve ever seen. One appeared to have a full sized camp chair. After that, the difference between my full running vest (probably 5lbs) and Ella’s full training pack (probably 25lbs) kicked in and I took off ahead of her.

Deer seem to have an affinity for the trail when traversing steeper sections of the mountain.

When coming down Desolation Peak, it would be odd to realize how little of the uphill I remembered because it seemed to go quickly. I think I spotted the tree where I’d sat down after bonking after midnight in the fog and rain on our previous Desolation Double attempt.

Between the camp and false summit of Desolation Peak looking south along Ross Lake.

There was enough mist and fog that the views from the top of Desolation Peak were mystical but not grand. I’m developing a theory that Clif Bars (>90% of the calories I’d packed) are fine for low-exertion activities like walking along the gently rolling East Bank Trail. For high-exertion activities like hiking quickly up Desolation Peak, they become unpalatable and I had no appetite for lunch. I’ve also recently realized that it’s much warmer to take off sweaty layers, dry out, and then put on warm layers than to put on insulation immediately over sweaty layers. I suppose this is obvious in hindsight but it’s a little odd to start the warming-up process by taking clothes off. I walked around fire watch house with my shirt off, flapping my arms for better airflow and hoping that the heat from my uphill effort would dry me off. There was an older couple from Grand Coulee at the top and I’m not sure what they thought of me. Apparently, I wasn’t so odd that we couldn’t take each other’s pictures.

Ella made it up a little over 20 minutes later and my appetite had returned enough to choke down some Clif Bars. She had potato chips and we compared calorie counts. Much to my surprise, things came out equal so I think I might try to crush up potato chips into a baggie the size of a Clif Bar the next time I need compact calories.

Lunch at the fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. I’m choking down a Clif Bar while Ella dines on potato chips.

The hike down felt like it took a long time. It was strange to think that we’d climbed all that way up.

At the bottom of Desolation Peak, the trail goes east and becomes the Lightning Creek Trail to wrap around the side of the peak away from the lake. It’s a little disappointing not to walk along the lake which would be a much shorter way. It looks like there may have once been a trail to do that, so I’m curious about the history. The east side allows access to the Castle Pass Trail which connects to the PCT. Also, the trail to the east starts by climbing, not exactly what I wanted to do at the moment but at least it wasn’t down.

As the trail turned north again, we ran across a group heading south which stopped us to say that there were blowdowns completely covering the trail so that it seemed impassable. Ella had beta from a friend that the trail was a mess so this wasn’t a surprise. The forest began to change to consist of denser, smaller trees. Less light got through and the feeling grew more sinister.

Initially, we hoped that somehow the group we’d just encountered been mistaken because it’d been so nice walking on cleanly cut, well graded trail. The first blowdown we encountered had fallen onto the trail long-wise so we joked that it was completely covering the trail and since that matched the description we’d been given, perhaps that had been the worst of it. Shortly after that, we were forced to bypass several brief sections where the trail was covered and the steep hillside provided better travel. While the worst bypass was the first one, it slowed us down enough that we started to become concerned about when we’d make it to Canada. We’d told Ross to expect us between 8 and 9pm and been about on track for 8pm. If this slowed us to 2mph, we’d be getting in well after dark and it would be hard to connect.

The worst of it. Not so bad since there ultimately weren’t many of these to bypass. God bless trail crews.

After descending to Lightning Creek, we found the shack and bridge had dodged the falling trees. The blowdowns became less frequent, though one small bridge had received glancing blows from three trees. We started encountering some cut trees and thought we might have reached clean trail again. Then we ran across more blowdowns, some of which had been cleared. What criteria had they used to decide what was cut and what wasn’t? Why would a trail crew decide to skip past some blowdowns which were much worse? I don’t know but I’m thankful for the logs we didn’t we didn’t have to approach like a jungle gym.

Look! We’re past the blowdowns! Oddly, this turned out not to be true.

Not being sure what pace we’d be able to keep and with limited daylight on my mind, I found myself floating ahead of Ella. It helped that my running vest made it easier to duck under or vault over logs. Separating on the climbs and bypasses had broken up the running conversation which had dominated the first part of the hike.

Nightmare Camp (sign on right) looks like a nightmare came true.

Just before crossing Lightning Creek to get to Nightmare Camp (yes, that’s the actual name), there’s a sign which says “Hozomeen 6.1” and “Ross Lake 8.7”. We were far enough into the hike now that while this differed from what we calculated based the track Ella had been keeping on her watch, we weren’t sure what to believe. This sign seemed to indicate we had farther to go than we’d thought. With uncertainty from the blowdowns, our finish time might be as late as 11pm, but it certainly seemed like we weren’t going to be finishing in daylight.

The last climb on the route is from Nightmare Camp up to a small pass. From the topo map it looked to be 600-700ft. It moved oddly, jumping from one flat bench, carrying on for a flat bit, then jumping up again. At their edges, the flat benches seemed to fall off steeply into the river valley. It made me think of a mossy, treed version of so many parts of the Hayduke. At one point the trail climbs the arm of ridge. Then it traces up a narrow ravine with a picturesque little stream in the middle. It isn’t clear when you’ve reached the top. The grade becomes gentle, the ravine widens, and at some point you realize it’s tipped over and you’re walking slightly downhill. It’s a strange climb because each section is so distinct as though it had been assembled from mismatched pieces. This makes oddly memorable compared with most of the route whose uniformity leaves relatively little impression per mile walked.

About the time we passed Willow Lake, Ella decided to challenge the distance we’d guessed based on the sign before Nightmare. In 2018 when hiking this route (minus Desolation Peak) to try big miles on my new ACL, I’d run out of daylight near Willow Lake and based on the mileage marker at Nightmare called it for the night, giving up on the attempt to make the border. The next morning I’d decided I really wanted to touch the border and managed to do so and make it back to my car by dark despite having come up short the day before. Back in the present, I didn’t want to put too much stock in the idea that we might be close enough finish before nightfall, but it seemed to jive with my memory that this section was shorter than the sign indicated.

Shortly after Willow Lake, we passed through some area which triggered a strong memory of being “almost done”. The trail sloped gently but constantly downhill, the hill rose on the left, the vegetation was luscious and well watered. My mind kicked into home-stretch mode. Of course, the end dragged out for longer than I remembered but the end is always the longest part of any trip. Finally, though the trail passed a rocky section with sparse trees and deposited us in a dirt parking lot by a greying cabin. It was before 8pm and still light out. This was a huge win emotionally and a great relief.

From here, it was just mile or so road walk to the Canadian border. There was plenty of soft light to see by. The road wasn’t paved but it was hard enough that I carried my poles. There were campsites and we started looking for a place where we might be able to camp. Due to a miscommunication, I didn’t have a shelter and it was looking like it would drizzle in the night. There were a few spots with dense trees, picnic tables, and if necessary, the camp toilets had long eves. I really hoped we’d find Ross.

We were low on water and had expected to draw from a stream which appeared to cross the road on the map. When we got there, it wasn’t conveniently accessible, but we would need water for the night so we decided to draw from the lake if we had to. Then we saw a spigot by the road. I turned the handle and water came out. I put my soft bottle under it but the liquid was milky. Perhaps it was stale? We let the water run for a bit then tried again. Still milky. I decided to taste it anyways and while it wasn’t quite like the streams we’d been drawing from, it seemed clean. Ella expressed great displeasure having to fill up with milky water. A minute or two later, I looked at her bottles and they were clear. It was just a little aeration.

A spigot with milky colored water (from aeration) does not make Ella happy.

The road carried us along as we played, “where should we camp if we can’t find Ross?”. Eventually, it passed a small cabin and reached a gate closed across the road. This was the Canadian border. Nothing to really prevent cross border access and it I don’t remember seeing anything about not crossing into Canada. This was good since the plan was to meet Ross in the Ross Lake Campground a few hundred meters on the other side. As we approached the gate and we began wondering what came next. There was a figure in Canada who might have been Ross but their gait wasn’t right and when they turned so we could see them in profile, there was no rich beard gracing their chin. There was, however, a bright-orange piece of tagboard with “Isaac & Ella” written across the top. I pointed this out and Ella lost her shit. She convulsed with inarticulate sounds of happiness interspersed with exclamations of “I love him” and other joyous expressions. I don’t think I’ve previously witnessed such intense expression of positive emotion.

Until this moment I didn’t know that humans could express such happiness. Probably my best candid photo ever.

Ross had left us directions to his van (he’s vandwelling at the moment). We stepped over the gate and found a short trail down to a boardwalk. We stopped just long enough point this out to some people who were failing to mount the steep, muddy bank to the road. A few steps later, we made out a figure dressed in dark colors like the person at the border. This one had Ross’s confident gait. I might not have Ella’s depth of emotional expression but I there was some volume behind the salutation I used to the figure’s attention. Ross turned towards us and restraint was required to draw close at a measured pace and give a large, warm, dignified hug instead running up and tackling him.

Ross showed us to his van and had recovery food out immediately. We wanted to hear about his adventures in Betsy, his van, and he wanted to hear about our day. It was so good to finally sit down and just be done. We’d been walking for something like 18 hours and other than lunch had stopped only long enough to draw water. Instead of sleeping rough with minimal rations, our journey had brought us to the comfort of a friend cooking dinner and trading stories in a shelter with running water and recessed lighting.

Ella book-ends the day with brownies while Ross makes dinner.

Ella and I had been planning to fore an early bedtime on Ross so we could get an early start the next day. Of course that didn’t quite happen but after a dinner of freshly cooked stir fry, a tour of the van’s features, and a hasty clean-up, Ross drove about a kilometer to where we could park for the night. I rolled out my sleeping pad on the floor next to Ross’s bed/bench where he slept. Ella laid out with her head almost between the seats but managed to fit. It was a little after 10pm when we turned off the lights and drifted off in the coziness of a well insulated space. Of course this meant we all overheated since we’d brought quilts intended for use in highly breathable tents but that didn’t change the fact that we were happy. Very, very, happy.

Saturday, July 4

I’m not sure when the alarm went off but this morning but it was a little bit slower. We out of the van and walking around 4:30am. Ross had packed most of this stuff the night before and so there was a little bit less of his usual last-minute packing routine where something gets forgotten (pointedly, he remembered his bagels this time). Some of this packing had happened while I was laying down and he was opening and closing a drawer which cleared my by a very small margin. Every time he was about to open it, I’d see a little smile creep across his face.

Since we’d parked a short distance up the road, we had a bonus walk to get to the border. There were signs posted warning about non-essential travel, but I think getting home counts as essential so we stepped over the gate like the callous international criminals we are.

Getting home the way you came is certainly a form of essential travel.

Ross had packed his gear into a running vest with a rolltop compartment large enough for minimal overnight gear. It looked like a fat running vest and so, since I enjoy objecting to the term “fastpacking”, decided to call this “fatpacking”. Much dissension followed since it’s obviously a fat vest, not a fat pack but I think I now prefer the term fatpacking to fastpacking.

Since Ross hadn’t hiked with us the day before, we alternated between trying to terrify him about all the blowdowns and reassure him that it wasn’t really so bad. He claims not to have been training much recently and so was worried about keeping up. Of course, this is a guy who for whom not training meant he did >67mi at the Quarantine Backyard Ultra before quitting instead of timing out. Ross kept up just fine.

Initially we were all hiking together until Ella dropped back with that “I’ve got to dig a cathole” look. As experienced hiking partners, Ross and I just kept walking. This understanding that it’s OK to separate and rejoin and trust that your hiking partner with wait somewhere and that you’ll catch up without really knowing when that’ll happen is one of the cultural differences between shorter outdoors trips and thru-hiker culture. We certainly enjoy each other’s company but given the amount of time you’d have to spend tied to another person, it’s easier to let people go at their own pace trust them to be responsible.

As it turns out, I too had to dig a cathole and after drawing water hiked a distance off trail, away from the water, and did my business. I was fortunate enough to have chosen a sheltered spot as it started raining during the process. When I made it back, Ella had passed and Ross waited for me. We walked and talked about topics varying from gloves to old movies. My left knee had started hurting when stressed on the descent into Nightmare and I could feel my right leg getting tired compensating. Given that Desolation Peak was still ahead, this was a little worrying. We caught up to Ella just as she reached Nightmare Camp. In her low for the day (on trips with Ella, you will always play Highs and Lows), she said that she’d hoped to stay ahead of us until after Nightmare. I thought her low would have been what she later shared, that she’d dug a cathole and not been able to poop. Anyone who’s felt the need to dig a cathole and then actually done the unpleasant chore of digging a proper one knows that it would feel like a terrible waste if it weren’t necessary.

At some point while catching up to Ella, Ross and I encountered a pair of women Ella and I had passed the day before on their way north near Willow Lake. They were the only people we’d seen on the Lightning Creek Trail. They had real backpacker backpacks and were working their way through a large mass of deadfall by handing their packs over and under the logs. I felt a little sheepish being able to just hop over and under things with a light-weight, low profile vest. We asked if Ella had passed. They said she had. We asked about their trip. They’d done ~30mi from the Ross Lake dam up to Hozomeen Lake. They hadn’t been moving quickly the day before and so it must have taken them the full day and speaks highly of their capabilities. At some point walking another mile isn’t just about muscular strength, but the soreness of your feet. They also mentioned having had to wait for three hours to get a permit on Thursday for such a rarely used campsite as Hozomeen Lake. In my mind, this validated our decision to have started and ended just outside North Cascades National Park instead of dealing with the bureaucracy. I was kind of surprised that the women didn’t tease us a little about having running vests while Ella carried a full backpack. Apparently they’d told her, in, I suspect, commiserating tones, that our packs were stupid. It is strange being on such an asymmetricly loaded trip, but Ella wanted training and I was still in recovery mode. What I was very pleased not to receive was any crap implying that men should be rough and tough and carry heavy stuff. I’ve had bystanders or people I pass comment on me not conforming to that version of masculinity and while I find their small-mindedness amusing, it detracts from the experience.

Ross next to the picturesque little stream early in the descent to Nightmare.

Looking back on it, we didn’t push the miles which took us to the base of Desolation Peak as hard as we had the day before. We’d had a debate about whether northbound or southbound was preferable on the route. I’d picked southbound because you got all the blowdowns and climbs out of the way and could cruise the second half without pressure. Apparently we hadn’t felt any pressure on the first half southbound and this logic would wind up reversed. When we started up Desolation Peak, I somehow thought that it was 10:30am which seemed a little slower than yesterday but only by the same amount that our start had been delayed. Ella said something about probably getting down around 5pm but I didn’t really process it and only later realized that we were much farther behind schedule than I’d thought. Ross and I took off up the switchbacks deep in a conversation about the trade-offs involved with living in small towns.

Ross and I eventually fell into separate paces. I passed a pot bellied fellow in mountaineering boots who told me his friends were up ahead and to tell them that “Paul was on his way up”. I did eventually catch his friends spread between the false and true summits and passed the message. Ross and Ella made it up and we had lunch. More Clif Bars for me, though Ross gave me a gummy worm to mix things up. Neither Ross nor Ella had seen someone matching Paul’s description which was a little worrisome. Eventually Paul’s friends decided to head down and our little trio had the views to ourselves. Things were clearer than the day before but there was still a cloud later with some low drifters which tended to obscure things just when you tried to take a picture. Just after we started down, we saw Paul’s friends coming back up, this time he was with them.

Looking North-west-ish from Desolation Peak along Ross Lake. Ross Lake is looooooong.
Happy hikers.

We left the summit a little before 2pm and weren’t back to the base until about 4:30 or 5pm. Ella would fall back then catch up at a run. It seemed intentional, like she was practicing running downhill. It had taken us 6 hours to get to the turnoff to Desolation Peak on the way in so we were looking at a 10:30 – 11pm finish. What happened? I like finishing with light in the sky and so this realization put me out of sorts. My pace quickened and I wasn’t much for conversation. I’d get ahead but not far. Ross would catch up at water crossings before I’d filled my water bottles and try to sleep before Ella showed up. While usually out of sight, she was never more than a minute or two behind. She and I would mime laughter to each other watching Ross sleep or meditate, then I’d wake him.

Ross was sleepy.
Ross receiving enlightenment.

The one notable event in the first miles south of Desolation Peak was when we saw a bridge jumper climb over a No Jumping sign to dive into the water. There was a small boat waiting for him below.

See the person on the left side of the bridge? They’re climbing over a No Jumping sign.

Somewhere before Rainbow Point, Ella said that she thought there were just six miles after the next camp. This seemed too optimistic to me, but between two GPSs, some approximations from the map, and sloppy mental conversions between kilometers and miles, it was anyone’s guess. At May Creek it looked like were were still on pace to finish after dark. Ella proposed having dinner, which she’d been carrying as a training weight, in an hour or so. Some time later, I asked if we could try to have dinner at the East Bank Trailhead since chasing daylight would be a major motivator. At Roland Creek, I was feeling full of energy. I tend to get a second wind around evening and was eating well. I stopped by the trail sign. Ross pulled up and tried to nap standing up. I pitched him on the idea of me running the ~9mi remaining (my estimate) to the car and bringing it back to the East Bank TH so that he and Ella only had to hike ~6. They didn’t object and neither did Ella, so off I went.

If anything, the fact that I was running, and uphill for the first two miles (a detail I’d forgotten about from our hike in), just goes to show that walking and running are fundamentally different. At one point, I kicked a rock which didn’t move and so I moved from vertical to horizontal. Fortunately the ground was soft. I stopped once before the descent to pee and check the GPS. If all went well, I’d get to the East Bank TH around 9pm, still within daylight. From there, the road to the car wouldn’t require a headlight. Given the option, I have a strong preference against headlights.

This wasn’t my first time racing daylight to the East Bank TH and so the run was full of memories. The shape of the trail and it’s relation to the river in the deep ravine below and WA 20 on the other side were the primary memory triggers. I’ve read stories where blind people would feel someone’s face with their finger tips to recognize the person. This was like me tracing a familiar path along the face of some wilderness. The angle at which you can see the bridge. The hope it gives out. The short climb out on the other side destroying that hope. It was all familiar. I exited the East Bank Trailhead around 9:10pm and turned left onto the road. It was still light.

The road run felt downhill which was odd since it had felt downhill to walk to the trailhead from the car. The pavement was much harder under my feet than the trail had been and while initially I made good time, I’d burned through the energy which had kicked off this endeavor and was too focused on the better food at the car to eat anything more. Eventually, I passed a sign which I’d remembered driving past shortly before Canyon Creek TH. The next turn didn’t have Canyon Creek TH. The turn thereafter had a large pullout which aped the shape of Canyon Creek TH and an interpretive sign which I’d forgotten about. I was empty and decided to walk so I could check the GPS and catch my breath. The GPS said it was around the next bend. Of course. I jogged it in, opened my car, and drank a lot of sugary, caffeinated, carbonated beverage.

Canyon Creek TH was not full but now held a number of other cars. Dark had fallen so I put on my headlamp and went to check out the camping options. We’d either have to encroach on another site or set up in a flat non-campsite. I drove back to the East Bank TH and there were Ross and Ella! It was funny to have a joyous reunion when I’d only just left them but showing up in a different mode of transport changed the dynamic. Ella hadn’t started making dinner so we rearranged the contents of the car so Ross could have a seat and drove back to Canyon Creek.

Ross and I established a camp around an fire ring which was a little close to another campsite. In exchange for food and shelter yesterday, we were putting Ross up tonight and I felt like quite a car camper handing him a duffel bag with a tent, sleeping bag, and air pad instead of a tightly optimized ultralight pack. Ella made dinner in her Jetboil by the car and despite it being relatively simple fare, it tasted amazing. After 12 Clif Bars, I think my body wanted anything with salt, fat, protein, or soft texture and that pretty much described dinner: ramen, tortellini, a salmon packet, potato chips, hummus, and olives. We sat eating in the folding chairs I’d brought to mimic the post-hike hangout Ross had put on a few weeks before when we overnighted at Deep Lake but it was dark so we didn’t linger before going to bed.

Sunday, July 5 – Epilogue

Ross was going to run back to Canada and so we couldn’t wait around all morning. I’d brought a skillet and omelette ingredients and so got up a little before 6am to try and make my first skillet-on-the-fire meal. As usual, I overestimated the quantity of meat and vegetables so I became something of an egg-dish instead of an omelette. Despite being an early morning, I’d risen without an alarm and didn’t feel rushed or tired. The fire had started easily which wasn’t surprising given the pre-treated log and quantity of denatured alcohol used in doing so. Ross’s tent had been pitched with one stake in the fire ring so I moved pulled that out and then put a folding chair in front of the entry so he wouldn’t wake up and roll out into the fire. The one thing I hadn’t brought was a pot holder. While casting around for something suitable, Ella tossed me her hiking skirt which had dried overnight. I guess even our attempts at car camping have the marks of being hiker trash.

This morning went very well.

Packing up camp is surprisingly easy when it just involves throwing things into large bags and carrying them a few yards to the car. I could get used to this car camping thing.

We dropped Ross off at the East Bank Trailhead to start his run back to Canada where Betsy (his van) was waiting. He repacked his bag. We had some last minute small talk. Hugs were exchanged. Promises made to stay in touch. Yada, yada, yada. Finally, he got up, started his watch and took off with a loping gait. 7 hours and 28 minutes later he was home again.

Ross, about to run 32 miles to get home just because his friends invited him on a 44 mile walk the day before.
What a guy.

All Pictures