Great Virtual Run Across Tennessee (May 1-17, 2020)

May 1, 2020 was a Friday. Like most weekdays for the last few weeks it was supposed to start with some speed training before work. My running experience is ad-hoc and informal. I’ve never trained with the goal of getting faster. I guess I assumed that as your ran more, you just got faster. After lots of running last year that didn’t seem to be happening and I needed a goal in life so plans were made to try to run a fast 5k. I hated it. Running fast hurts in your lungs, your vision fuzzes, sometimes there’s the taste of blood in your mouth, your legs feel ponderous. Then, because you’re training, you do it again after an insufficient respite. I wanted out but had just been committed by a friend to training blocks of at least three weeks. If I were going to quit without finishing even one block, I needed a way of saving face.

Sitting on my stairs, suited up to go running, I pondered the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee that was starting today. Instead of logging my sprint work-outs as my daily mileage in the race, what if I ran easy, fun half-marathons through local parks on varied routes? Wouldn’t that be better than mechanically pounding a painful pace into the regimented routes I used for speed training? Yes, yes it would. A little over two hours later I’d was cruising home to finish up a meandering 14 miles.

Unfortunately, miles 13-16 tend to be where I get my second wind. I started doing mental math to see how long it would take to finish the 1000km virtual race. Still a long time. What if I ran a full marathon every day? Less than a month but precision isn’t my strong suit when doing long division in my head. Then I realized that a 50k every day would finish in 20 days. Easy math. Dangerous math. I showered, breakfasted, worked, and then went out for 18 miles to pick up my first daily 50k. I ran out of water and started counting down the miles one at a time. Then by quarters. Then by tenths. Easy math. Difficult math.

Hobbling around that evening, I explained the plan to my housemate. He looked at me limping from a right hip which felt like it was trying to slip out whenever I pulled that leg forward and expressed concern. Did I have to do this? I told him that tomorrow was the weekend so I could walk the miles. This whole virtual race across Tennessee thing feel like a good idea anymore.

May 2 started like a typical Saturday hike. I filled a daypack with food, water, an insulating top, and rain layers. The weather predicted light rain. Within 15 minutes of walking out the front door, that rain started. I put on my the experimental rain garment I’d brought to test on this walk. Think of it as either a poncho with arms and a bulge for your backpack or a very loose, oversized raincoat with space for your pack. The looseness was acceptable for walking but didn’t feel conducive to speed which was OK because I had all day to walk counter-clockwise around Lake Sammamish and then figure out how to pick up ten or so extra miles.

The light rain came and went making it a little hard for me to decide when to take off the raingear. However, constantly evaluating the state of the weather was a distraction which helped the miles pass. Endurance, an audiobook about the Shackleton expedition also helped.

These long weekend walks would present opportunities to get take-out from restaurants as though they were aid stations. I’d been using the draw of a burrito to pull me through the first 21-ish miles around the lake. As I drew near, I was worried that the rain would interfere with the touch screen on my phone so I wouldn’t be able to order online. Instead, I called to place an order. A voice recognition system for the national franchise answered but gave up when trying to understand my credit card number. It put me through to the restaurant itself which informed me they didn’t take orders over the phone. Apparently, you can just walk in to restaurants and order during the shutdown, it’s only the sitting and eating which is banned.

When I got home and assessed the day’s damage, it appeared that my hip issue was gone but I had difficulty flexing my left foot up due to a pain in the front of that ankle. The fridge was nearly empty so I drove to the store and hobbled around leaning on the cart, checking my shopping list thoroughly at every aisle and section to make sure I wouldn’t have to make more than one lap around the store. I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep walking tomorrow.

May 3, being a Sunday, put me in the mood to approach the day’s miles like a Sunday stroll. I walked around the north of Lake Washington via the Sammamish River Trail, Burke Gilman Trail, and 520. The weather lacked rain but the experience was nondescript. I finished Edurance and started Grant, a biography of Ulysses S Grant and let my mind hike the highways of history while my feet padded along the paths of the present.

The left-ankle issue wasn’t a problem by the end of the day, despite having been an issue in the morning. Instead, the muscle in my right shin ached at the end of the day. Fortunately I didn’t notice it during the actual walking. Blisters had now formed on inside of my right big near the toenail and on the front of the ball of the foot between the big and long toes. I rarely have to deal with blisters and so hoped these would go away overnight after being drained. It was not to be.

The only other person I know who was doing the GVRAT sent me an encouraging text after I’d finished for the day and was stuffing my face while doing digital chores so I could get to bed in time to fully rest while still getting up early enough to run before work. Given that I’d heard about the run through two channels, I’d expected to know more participants. Despite the contact being brief, it was good for my spirits. Motivation is a funny thing.

May 4 was a Monday which meant I had to work, which meant that I had to run instead of walk. 16 miles before work. 16 miles after work. Getting started required small shuffling steps to loosen the joints to the point where I could use a running form. The all-encompassing nature of this event was becoming clear. I felt pressure to to average at least 10min/mile so I could finish by 9:30am so I could shower and eat before work at 10am. After work, I needed 10min/mile so I could finish in time to shower, eat, and dispatch with correspondence and do minimal chores. Staying up late would just mean stealing time from the next day’s run.

Other than blisters, which had grown despite having been drained, I felt hopeful at the end of the day. Despite sore feet, stiff joints, and tired muscles, nothing was structurally wrong with my body. It was a sign that my body might be learning to manage the strain instead of breaking under it. I had expected that, like a through-hike, injury was most likely to strike early before the body could adapt to the rigors of high daily mileage. I felt hopeful about the rest of the event. Plus, I was 20% of the way through my plan.

May 5, a Tuesday, brought challenges which were more psychological than physical. Having survived the opening days without injury, I now had to face the monotony and slow degeneration which would take place with so much of the race still ahead. My pace was starting to ebb as a knocked off four mile laps around the neighborood, four in the morning and four in the evening.

I used the least mentally engaging course available to increase the likelihood of slipping into flow or getting lost in my audiobook and having the time pass without the weight of the future seconds, minutes, hours, and days crushing my mindset. The first mile would feel good. The second would get me to 1/8th. The third to 3/16ths which still felt positive, like an ant plodding persistently past lines on a ruler. I’d continue this way, ticking off progress within the current lap then trying to only look at the total lap count when I passed my condo association again. I ran clockwise in the morning since the shorter east-west slopes were run downhill which helped wake me up and in the morning I’d have more energy for the long, shallow uphills on the north-south oriented edges of the route. Running counter-clockwise in the evening provided some variation but also meant I got to spend more time and distance in a downhill stride which felt like a reward where I could build up motivation for the shorter climbs to recover the elevation. By any accounting in absolute terms, there was little elevation change – about 250ft per lap – but when your heart isn’t in it, you notice the little things. At this point, I was still finishing each run with a second wind which brought me in at a faster clip over the last mile or two for a roundly positive cascade of post-run emotions.

I’d now finished 25% and was feeling good. Just three more times what I’d already done. Seemed possible.

May 6, Wednesday, was a pivotal day in the run. Despite significant IT issues on the race website, I was checking my place daily, usually by whatever means was simplest and most reliably. The map which was supposed to show our position on the course had placed us in a straight horizontal line across North Africa and North America at different times. After the spreadsheet behind it all available had to be presented as a static webpage due to overload, I used that until the it stopped being updated in favor of a list with bare statistics for each runner. At this point, it was being updated every several hours and so runners who recorded mileage early in the day moved up sooner. I seemed to be recording my mileage late in the day and so would try to guess my actual position by seeing where I’d fall after my mileage for the day was included. Much to my surprise, I was usually finding my name on the first page of results and after compensating for whose mileage had and hadn’t been recorded, I was usually just short of 10th.

Like any race, I’d expected people to start at very different paces than the ones which they would eventually settle into. Having found myself settling so close to the front and with enough of the race still ahead that a small change of pace could make a big difference in time and position, I set a new goal: 36 miles per day. According to the mental math I did while running repeated rectangles ’round the neighborhood, doing a extra lap in the evening on weekdays would let me finish a day early. If I could pull big weekend mileage by walking for as long as possible, then I might even be able to finish on Sunday, May 17th in time to settle back into work the next day without the additional stress of five or more hours of running per day.

That extra lap that evening was difficult. It took longer to get to half way, throwing off the mental game I’d built to keep the weight of the future from crushing me.

May 7, Thursday, was difficult. In the evening run’s description on Strava, I wrote, “Pro Tip: Ground beef & kale based curry is not a good pre-run meal. I’m not quite sure how I didn’t wind up walking but by the end it was about that slow.” Aside from poor choices in pre-run meals, I’ve been running out of water. It turns out two 500ml soft bottles aren’t enough for 16 and 20 mile runs so I hit on an ingenious solution: use my home as an aid station since I pass there every 4 miles. That might also reduce the frequency with which I had to nip down a side trail to water a bush.

May 8, Friday, the cumulative exhaustion is setting in. A major source of motivation is the thought that I’ll get to walk for the next two days. I’ve been skipping out of work an hour early to get running so I can finish by nightfall. My per-mile pace has fallen to well over 10min/mile.

May 9, Saturday, is the start of the second weekend. A big mile day is key to bringing the finish date in towards May 17 so I load up my day pack and set out to walk around Lake Washington clockwise. Officially, public parks are supposed to be open but at one point, I wind up walking on some railroad tracks with an “Active Railroad” sign to bypass a locked gate through which I see people strolling. A about half way around the lake, I hit gold – a public restroom that’s open – so I don’t have to use my blue bag in public. It’s near a beach full of sunbathers. I don’t spend much time on beaches and so it’s not really obvious to me whether people are acting any different due to the social distancing rules. Lockdown is strange.

Grant is still the audiobook I’m listening to; it’s 48 hours long. I break up the day with a phone call to a friend. This is my first voice conversation with someone besides my housemate since starting the GVRAT. I’ve scheduled a phone first-date for Sunday and need to see if I can walk and talk. The answer is well enough for a friendly catch up, not well enough for a date.

Late in the day, the walking is getting hard despite being on flat asphalt paths. Through-hikers know that road walking is hard on your body. The goal for the day is 50 miles and I realize about 36 miles in that the route I’ve chose is at least several miles longer. Out comes the map app and I wind up using turn-by-turn directions to get me the last 8-ish miles home via backroads instead of following the Sammamish River trail. Night is falling while I’m still an hour away and my housemate texts to ask if I’m OK. I reply with an ETA and he says he’ll call off the choppers.

I’m not in good shape when I get home. I’d been out of water for the last 6-8 miles, probably because I’d put delicious fake orange juice powder in my primary reservoir and so drank it too fast. The blisters, for which these long walks are worse than running, are not longer possible to drain. Some are three deep. I cut them off with scissors, clean the newly exposed skin, and let them dry. I’ll pack them with cotton and tape over them for tomorrow’s walk. I fall asleep on my back, despite being a side sleeper, as I have for the last several nights, because the muscles on the side of my hips (the hip flexors?) hurt so much that they keep me awake if I sleep on them.

May 10, is another “Sunday stroll”. It’d be far too hard on my body to try for another big day so I set off for a counter-clockwise tour of Lake Sammamish hoping to get ice cream at a small, independent convenience store in the first few miles and a burrito for a late lunch about 22 miles before having my phone date in a park and finishing off the day with an out-and-back up the Sammamish River Trail for 36 miles. The convenience store is closed but I get the burrito, stuff it into my face, and flop down under the shade of a tree at 3pm for the phone call, glad that my date won’t be able to see my disheveled appearance and beard still wet with burrito juice. The connection is poor. Ironically, we’d both tried to take the call from parks. We reschedule for 4pm and I hoof it home. Two hours later, I sign off with, “I’ve got another 12 miles to walk before sundown”, though I’d forgotten to account for the walk home and fortunately only have 9.5 which I make by sundown. We’ll trade a few text messages over the next few days before going silent but I get several excellent audiobook recommendations since Grant is finally done.

May 11, the final Monday, is a major psychological milestone. From here out, each day of the week will be the last time I have to run or walk on that day of the week. Checking things off like that is a huge psychological boost. Additionally, my speed is back up. I’m running out of athletic tape for my blisters and have switched to gear repair tape since I don’t have time to get to as store.

May 12, the final Tuesday, is hard psychologically. It feels too early to be having trouble keeping it together. Scabs have been forming where I’ve cut off some of the blisters and each time I go running, the first mile is spent breaking them in and softening them up so I can run properly without feeling like there’s a pebble under the front of the ball of my foot.

May 13, the final Wednesday, is saved largely through the realization that I can walk the Friday evening miles and so after finishing, I’ll only have to go running three more times.

Since I’ve been running the same route morning and evening for two weeks now, I’ve begun to recognize faces and trade waves with the regulars. When this started, runners rarely passed me. Now the only runner who doesn’t is an older asian guy with a big smile who wears a visor and if it’s cold in the morning, socks on his hands. I also enjoy encountering another older asian guy who walks for exercise, sometimes with his hands raised as though in a sign of victory while listening to what sounds like classical music. Such characters.

May 14, the final Thursday, is held together on the grounds that it’s my last full day of running. My pace has fallen off but doesn’t I manage to keep it under 11min/mile. I decide I don’t care about efficiency anymore and take a long tour through a nearby park, out to the 520 trail, and back through Microsoft HQ, instead of my standard neighborhood loop. It’s slower since it rolls a little and requires thought now and again but the change is good.

With the closing weekend coming up, I’ve been studying the daily position and mileage of the runners around me. The updates now come out after everyone has posted their daily mileage and so show me somewhere from 12th to 9th. Everything had been pretty stable but Claudia from Great Britain put a 100 mile day and jumped ahead and so now there’s someone younger than me ahead of me, a first. It’s a guessing game as to whether she’s going to have a slow day which will bring her average back in line as has happened with anyone else who posted a 100 or if she’s going for a big finish. Going through the previous daily mileages for all of the runners around me, it’s clear that 3 to 5 runners could finish might finish on Saturday. My guess is that a Saturday finish will make it very likely that I finish top 10. A Sunday finish strikes me as leaving a top-10 finish up to a coin flip. Whatever strategy I pick, I’ll have to start executing it on Friday despite only having data from Thursday morning, almost a day behind.

May 15, the final Friday. I check the positions list first thing in the morning and get an error page indicating type of error on the web server which I haven’t seen playing around with simple websites in high school. How did Claudia follow-up her 100? Is anyone else showing signs of pushing for a finish? After grinding out the morning’s run on a new set of shoes which cushion everything wonderfully, I’m in a a can-do mindset. The plan is to attempt to close the last 100 miles by walking, starting after work, in four 25 mile laps trying to keep above a 3mph pace which should let me finish before midnight on Saturday. This seems the most manageable way to finish on Saturday, and maybe even get that 6th place which is the best anyone in my pack might take.

I do the first lap as a trip around Lake Sammamish from one ice cream franchise north of the lake to the same one, south of the lake so I can try all their specialty milkshakes. This goes off very well except that my right pinky toe aches terribly as though it no longer fits in the shoe. I can tell that there’s space for it, but only after I’d applied sufficient moleskin to a newly formed blister on the inside of my right heel which was leading to a compensating behavior that had jammed the pinky toe into the side of the shoe. The server error on the position list website hasn’t been resolved when I check around 11pm and so I head out for another lap, deciding to err on the side of going-for-it instead of hoping that everyone keeps pace through the finish.

May 16, the final Saturday, starts by ending in disaster. Attempting to cure my pinky toe, I’d switched back to a pair of running flats which were now too hard on my joints. My stride adapted a little but was about 18min/mile, much slower than the 15-16 I’d hoped to keep this early in the effort. I kept it up for about two miles but the ache in my right small toe hadn’t been resolved and at some point my face started convulsing like it was trying to cry without tears. I had the shoes which had initially pulverized the right pinky toe in my pack and put them on. At least my stride felt better even if the toe still hurt.

After two hours, my headlight switched off suddenly and wouldn’t come back on. While the path was clear, this was disconcerting and didn’t pair well with the ache which was now washing up from my right small toe up to my torso. In my haste to set out, I hadn’t packed an insulating layer and so the slight cold was seeping in and magnifying the ache. Also unexpected were the effects of sleep deprivation. By 2am I was weaving back and forth across the path in the dark instead of holding a straight line. My vision seemed clear, not doubled as usually happens to me when sleep deprivation attacks, but lights in the night didn’t seem to sit still. I considered finishing this lap extremely unlikely but didn’t want to give up just because things were getting hard. In ultra running (nevermind I was walking), things always get hard. This was, however, more painful than anything I’d experienced and so I decided then if my pace fell to slower than 3mph, I would let myself hail a ride home. But my pace didn’t fall and so as I approached the south end of Lake Sammamish I decided I’d pushed through long enough at 18-19min/mile to satisfy my personal need to keep the stiff upper lip. Since I wasn’t going to manage this for another 21 hours, I should taxi home so I didn’t damage myself further. After getting some sleep, I could pick up enough miles to position myself for a finish tomorrow.

Around 3:30am, I hailed a ride after having my credit card declined and having to use my backup. I made a Covid-mask out of a bandana but the driver wasn’t wearing a mask and didn’t seem concerned. At home, I hobbled up the stairs and lay down to die before deciding that I really did need to clean up. While showering, the pinky toe seemed structurally sound but was tender. The toenail was black and there was a blister in front of it. The decision to call off the night lap was probably good as the sides of my butt were sore in a way I didn’t know was possible. Things really had been falling apart.

At 8am I was woken up by a call from the credit card fraud hotline. Around noon, I actually got out of bed, packed a bag, and slowly strolled around Lake Sammamish picking up two milkshakes, a burrito, and conversing with a co-worker who I happened to encounter. All of this while casually wearing the same shoes as the night before but without the pain.

May 17, Sunday, I set out for a walking tour of the I-90 bridge, Seattle waterfront as far as Discovery Park, then returned over 520. A burger franchise’s drive-through didn’t acknowledge my presence when trying to walk through for breakfast so I bought a pan of cornbread and a soda from a grocery store. Diet of champions. The day was beautiful in the best of Pacific Northwest fashion. I almost took a picture realizing that I’d probably mention it this post but decided not to break my tradition of not taking pictures during races. I race to run, or, in this case, saunter. No time for fun.

I didn’t even have to saunter all the way home. My mileage count had ticked more than a mile past the finish when I reached an independent drive-in restaurant and decided to end in time for one last celebratory milkshake and burger. Not knowing that all finishers on a given day were considered as tying, I called my parents to ask them to post my mileage immediately since the recording form wasn’t functional in the mobile browser on my phone. My housemate even picked me up so I wouldn’t have to walk home. Such and easy last day may have been the literal and moral equivalent of walking it in, but it was a glorious walk.

Epilogue

May 18, the day after I’d logged my 1000th kilometer of the 1000km Great Virtual Race across Tennessee, Dad sent me an e-mail with a copy of the finisher page showing my name tied for a 7th place finish on May 17th.

Didn’t catch Claudia or the Gingerbread Man.

Later, I got an e-mail from Laz, the race director congratulating me on the finish, and offering a registration link to virtually run back across Tennessee. I decided not to take him up on the offer.

When the race director says your done, you’re done. Kinda cool to get an e-mail from Laz himself.

I’d had a great Monday getting to focus on work without counting down the hours until I had to run again.

May 20, after I’d been convalescing in the glow of a multiple-day release of tension and endorphins, I get a follower request on Strava from a stranger. I accept and a few hours later, they let me know about a Facebook post from Laz asking if anyone knew why I’d stopped so close to the finish. Apparently this was a 1021.68 km race. Panic set in and few searches revealed this:

Now Laz is saying I didn’t finish?

Reading through the comments, it was apparent that I wasn’t the only one who’d thought that this was a 1000km race. I replied privately to Laz’s congratulatory finisher e-mail to let him know I was OK. Having emotionally finished the race started moving on, I let him know I wasn’t intending to finish but that I liked the suggestion of maybe finishing on the final day. Mom has started so maybe I’ll finish with her. Laz wrote back joking that I’d be lucky to avoid the nickname, “where’s Isaac?” and that to mess with people, I should log a few miles every once in a while.

I’ve never seen myself be the subject of public speculation so it was interesting seeing all the comments wondering about me. I left a comment thanking the stranger who’d reached out to let me know about the thread and informing everyone I was doing well.

There were also several reply chains from someone who’d also thought it was a 1000km race (not 1021.68km) because the actual distance was hard to find. These tended to receive short replies with screen shots of the FAQ showing the offical distance clearly listed and sometimes statements about the importance of reading the rules. However, the WayBack machine shows that course description page (current link, WayBack link) and the FAQ (current link, WayBack link) were cached on May 8th 2020, there was no mention of the 1021.68km distance. The FAQ even states, “In order to earn your finisher’s medal, you’ll have to finish 1000k before September 1, 2020”. The mistake is completely understandable. I made it. Based on his congratulatory e-mail, Laz made it. May people on the Facebook thread made it. In fact, while the course description and FAQ have now been updated, as of May 25, 2020, the race info page (current link, Wayback link) still only lists 1000km. Ultimately, it was my mistake to run only 1000km as everyone who finished before me seems to have figured out that the distance was 1026km, though I’m not sure how they did it.

Conclusion

While the late discovery that I hadn’t actually finished was a bitter coda, I kind of enjoy the idea that everyone approaching the end will march past my slot on the position list and wonder, “where’s Isaac?” A runner who been in the 50km/day pack friended me on on Facebook yesterday to ask if I was OK, and joked that he was only planning on starting back across Tennessee once I’d finished. I let him know he might be waiting a while. We commiserated about the effort and wished each other the best.

I’ve always wanted to know what it would be like to do a marathon a day for an extended period of time. I’m thankful to Laz, Durb, and their team for putting on an event that pushed me to finally do it.

Day -60: Big Decisions

[Update March 17, 2020: Per the ATC’s guidance, my summer plans are on hold]

Memories from February 29, 2020. This post is a little on the introspective side but realizing that the grieving process had been useful for managing conflicting ambitions seems like an insight worth sharing.

Today I decided to attempt the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Continental Divide Trails (CDT) this summer. The packing party invites I sent out this week said I was doing the AT and CDT. In texts with friends and calls with family, I’ve been saying the same. The problem is that until today, none of this sat well with me.

I’d wanted more. After hiking the PCT in 2016, I caught the long distance hiking bug and found myself repeatedly interested in a Calendar Year Triple Crown (hike the PCT, AT, and CDT in a single year). This was a low grade, long festering dream. Higher priority were financial goals. Then were relational goals. Finally, there were career goals. All of those came before hiking goals. The hike was delayed one year and then another. I have a spreadsheet with 2018 in the title because it represented a plan to meet a financial goal that year. I didn’t re-title it when events transpired which delayed the projection until 2019. More events transpired (not the recent stock market drop). Now the projection is 2020/2021. The relational goals have seen less traction, perhaps not surprisingly as people are less predictable than paychecks. The one place things are going well is my career; I’m on the cusp of a long desired opportunity which will disappear if I go hiking. After years of delays which have failed to resolve a number of my much desired goals, walking away for anything less than the full CYTC seemed like a let down.

The problem, of course, is that the CYTC is a brutal undertaking. I found myself building plan after schedule after resupply strategy, trying to find a way to escape daily mileage targets which seemed like they would sap the joy from the experience. I ran a number of ultra marathons last year and so no one part of the plan seemed unmanageable. The problem is that after running an ultra, you rest. After hiking an ultra as part of the CYTC, you wake up and do it again the next day. Town stops are aid stations – necessary but minimized. It becomes an ultra marathon of ultra marathons.

Into this unresolved problem stepped Garret “Pathfinder” Guinn (his blog). At dinner after a day hike with him and another friend late last year, I discovered he had attempted the CYTC in 2018. While he finished a couple weeks into 2019, the planning and experience he conveyed confirmed the grinding nature of my expectations. Garrett is an an engineer by trade and coach by passion. He sent me his planning materials and talked about physical and mental aspects of the undertaking. While Garrett’s experiences they made the undertaking seem more relatable, the physical and emotional cost seemed all the more inescapable.

Cause of my my discontent was something I’d experienced before: priorities which in some cases supported each other and in other cases conflicted. On the Hayduke in 2018, I started with unstated goals both of hiking the entire route and enjoying myself. These came into conflict when I had to bail out of a section and didn’t have enough leave from work to restart it. The process of identifying, articulating, and releasing myself from the first goal so that I could embrace the second seems like it should have been simple: “you’ve been saving vacation days for two years, why would you spend hard won days of freedom on anything you don’t enjoy?”. In practice, I went through the stages of grief, almost quitting the Hayduke, before being able to embrace the adventure only from the viewpoint that I should enjoy it.

By this time, I’d been through the first three phases of grief about the CYTC: denial that it was going to be as demanding it was, anger that I couldn’t seem to make it work in a reasonable manner (many planning sessions kept me up until midnight), bargaining with the trail by rearranging my plans almost a dozen ways to see if it would fit. The bargaining ended with a 42 mile walk during sick day I took from work which resulted in 8 blisters. Depression, the next phase of grief, now kicked in as I tentatively tried out plans which didn’t involve all three trails. I wasn’t depressed in the clinical sense, though a lack of vitamin D due the the winter here in the Pacific Northwest didn’t help (I started supplements last week and they’re my new favorite recreational drug). Instead, I found that my new plans didn’t feel like they were worthy of quitting my my wonderful job and spending 8 or more months of life to undertake.

Today, acceptance came in a strange way. Garrett was in the area again having quit work and about set of on a long adventure of his own design. His enthusiasm for hiking and adventure was infectious. We hiked 10 miles, drove to lunch, ate lunch, sat in the restaurant talking, walked over to REI, stood around REI talking (frequently interrupted by attentive associates), then walked about three miles before calling it quits. We chewed over some of my worries and reasons for downgrading from the CYTC to AT+CDT, and he added some color to support both sides of the discussion. At the end of our time together, the CYTC just seemed possible and I had every intention of going home and revisiting my original plans with his new stories in mind. First though, I took a nap.

The only photo I took on the hike with Pathfinder. Shortly after this, we took a wrong turn.

Waking up from that nap, I found I had no desire to hike the CYTC. I was now happy with the narrative I’d built around the AT+CDT hike. They’ll be the “wedding hikes” as I’ll be leaving form one wedding to start the AT and need to finish the CDT in time to attend another. Bonus: the couple in the first wedding my at my pre-PCT going-away party. If I want to keep hiking after that, I can hike a trail which is in season instead of pushing into winter conditions. I felt free again.

My CYTC dreams had been anchored by a quote from Jenifer Pharr-Davis about what became her second record setting hike of the Appalachian Trail, “I didn’t want to look back and I didn’t want to wonder.” Giving up on the CYTC before starting seems at odds with this. But recently, I’d written down something Dylan Bowman said during a talk I attended at UW, “Do what you do because you love it, not because you’re afraid of the person you’d be without it”. I’m a naturally driven person. I don’t want to wonder if I could have done a CYTC this year. That’s why I had to grieve forsaking it. More important to me is the pleasure I take in these long distance hikes: the wonder and awe; the camaraderie; the capturing and sharing of memories; the physical accomplishment of big miles, long days, rough travel and the delicious rest that comes thereafter. And so with my priorities straight, I can embrace my plans for the summer. If it turns out I really care about the CYTC, there’s always next year.

Thanksgiving on Mt St Helens (Nov 21-23, 2019)

Thanksgiving Day (Thursday)

I’d cooked a Turkey the night before, yams and marshmellows the night before that, and strawberry jello nut salad (a family tradition) the night before. I spent the morning prepping and packing. Carve the turkey, cover everything in foil, nest bowls and plates so they won’t rattle or break in the car, find polar fleece leggings I haven’t used since last year, take my larger backpack down from where I’m using it as wall art, will titanium shephards hooks hold my tent up if there’s more than the inch or two of snow we expect? The list goes on. Almost forget to buy and print a Sno Park permit.

Lizi, Ella’s friend texts her as she crosses the border. Rendezvous a little before noon at Ella’s place. I park on a hill several blocks away. In this neighborhood, parking is notoriously difficult. After securing the lid of the borrowed fire pit against the incessant rattling it had made on the drive over, I walk past several open parking spots. I guess people get out of town for Thanksgiving. We sure are.

The faded walls of Ella’s apartment where we wait are decorated with photographs of friendship and adventure. Her coffee table has books on history, philosophy of science, and adventure. Soft christmas music plays and we verbally process our nerves about the cold by talking about gear and reliving misadventures. Lizi arrives and asks all the same questions and charges her phone. I ask if Ella still has my USB-car adapter from the Enchantments Through-Swim. She does and covets it. She also returns the fleece I’d left in her car when she dropped my off for the Issy Alps 100k, just as she’d left a shirt in my car when I’d dropped her party off for their Issy Alps 100k attempt. I’ve forgotten a ball cap and borrow one. We identify a budding tradition. At the end of the trip she almost leaves a pair of knickers in my car and I still have her ball cap.

Lizi and Ella are college friends (“uni” as the Brits call it) and have lots of catching up to do as we drive south. Lizi rides shotgun and passes around a bag of goldfish crackers which winds up being most of lunch. She’s been ski bumming in popular ski town but now works for a non-profit. This trip has just started and they’re already making plans plans for another.

The Forest Road to Marble Mountain Sno Park at the base of Mt St Helens winds up being dry an clear. We’d be worried about ice. This appears but we’re almost at the end. It’s past 4:30pm so night has fallen. We make two laps of the parking area looking for a place to camp. This is a parking area, not a camping area. It’s not looking good until the headlights of the car pick up a cleared, flat, level spot. I park. A small fire ring is visible so no need for the one taking up space in the trunk. I shut off the car and turn on the interior lights. Someone cracks a door open and the scramble to layer up begins.

The campsite has several flat areas. We set up tents in the furthest one back. There’s plenty of room. The snow was little more than a dusting and the titanium shepard’s hooks held just fine. Dinner time.

Ella puts a string of fairy lights around the rock fire pit. We unload plates from the car, unwrap aluminum foil, stuff crumpled newspaper and under logs. Then we light the newspaper, the logs catch, and we are warmed. The food is cold but hadn’t frozen. I load a bowl and eat, seated in a backpacking chair. The ladies wrap food in foil and tuck it into the fire, “hobo style”, and sit on their foam sleeping mats. Lizi cheats on her vegetarian diet. Champagne is consumed from back-country pots and cups.

And that’s how we ate Thanksgiving Dinner. Bundled up against the cold, drinking champagne from back country cups also used for food.

A car and a truck arrive, revving their engines and doing donuts. Huddled around the campfire, we talk about how people should have something better to do on Thanksgiving. The revving stops and a hood is popped. Some time later they drive off, ice crunching under the wheels.

I’m barely hungry after a first course. The fire throws embers and pine needs into the serving dishes so everything looks like it has cracked pepper and rosemary. I go for seconds anyways. We talk about how ridiculous we are, eating a Thanksgiving dinner in the woods bundled in every layer we have, in temperatures not cold enough to freeze our water bottles but not warm enough to melt the lose granular snow burdening the ferns. I get asked why I cooked so much food and respond that I want to be a father who makes pancakes on Saturday morning and turkey on Thanskgiving.

We let the fire start to die. Ella warms up pie, hobo style, for everyone. We move closer and the logs turn to coals. I’ve been avoiding drinking from my water bottle, intending it for tomorrow’s hike. We start collecting snow to melt, Ella and I in our cups placed beside the fire, Lizi in her stove which is much faster. This is my first time melting snow to drink. Initially, it’s easiest to brush clean snow off plants into my pot’s coozie for transport back to the fire but snow shrinks so much when melted that I end up scooping it off the ground. The water tastess like the pine needles I filter out by poking bandana into the top of my water bottle and slowly pouring the warm liquid through. This chore keeps us busy while the fire dies.

Despite the cold, we kill the fire completely dumping cups of snow on it. I intend to finish the job by peeing on the fire, a favorite benign ritual of masculinity, documented in the movie Boyhood. Ella informs me that this rite is not strictly limited to males and wants to go first, apparently unaided by a feminine urinary device. Neither of us quite quenches the fire so Lizi stirs the ashes around. All is quiet. We turn in before the cold can creep back in to our fingers and toes.

There’s no liquid water in the area so we made some.

 

Friday

Motor vehicles crunching the thin ice in the parking lot wake me up shortly after 2am. They keep coming, sometimes washing the tent walls with luminescence which makes it hard to sleep. I relax and lay conscious with my eyes closed until I hear rustling from Ella or Lizi’s tent. It’s 4:10am. Start time is 5:30am. I had planned on stirring at 4:30am. Ella points out that the target start time is 5:00am, 5:30am was the cut off for late comers. A dog barks which is probably Jolly, Emily’s tan, long haired dog. She’s bringing Ben who I haven’t met. Garrett was having Thanksgiving at his parents’, 5.5hrs away and not planning on leaving until after a particular guest but also said he’d make it one way or another. I drag myself through through packing up, deciding to keep on all my sleeping layers, and rueing the fact fact that my sleeping bag goes in the bottom the pack must be packed first. Toasty legs meet chilly air.

I’m greeted by a woofing and bounding Jolly half way across the parking lot. I return his woofs, match his bounds with jumping jacks, then finish crossing the slippery parking lot to find that Garrett has already connected with Emily and Ben. Turns out I’m the last one up.

We fill out self-issue climbing permits. Conversation flows and for a few minutes we don’t notice that everyone is ready. The trail starts wide, probably and old forest road, lightly covered in snow but not enough to interfere with walking. This is vaguely familiar from the Bigfoot 100k earlier this year. We’re taking the Worm Flows route which is a name I enjoy seeing on the trail signs which guide us guide us through the first few turns.

Pacing with a group of six was always going to be a bit interesting. Multiple people had expressed concern about being able to keep up and one was injured enough that they were skipping their run training. This started to play out a bit as a group of three pulled ahead, two fell behind. I wanted to listen to both conversations! I love eavesdropping while hiking. This was briefly remedied when I forced everyone to take a de-layering break.

The two groups re-formed and drifted apart again. I chose the rear group to better make the acquaintance of those with whom I was less familiar. The trail narrowed and began to get a little rocky as we passed the treeline and got onto the rocks. The lead group stopped now and again to let us catch up, and sometimes people would switch groups when this happened. Breaks dragged out as we admired the sunrise and layered up or down as the wind came and went. I learned a new term, “puffy envy” which is apparently when you see someone wearing a puffy jacket and it makes you want to put on your own. Ben had spent several years in Guatemala. Emily had completed a climbing project. Garret had hiked the Triple Crown. Everyone had a story to share. Each story inspired another.

At the base of the first ridge, a peach layer split the blue snow and blue sky.

The trees became smaller and sparser, then gave way to rock. The route follows ridges which don’t leave much room to get lost and it was clear where many feet had tread. We continued to stop regularly and informally, trade conversation partners, and whoever was least patient at the moment would eventually lead off. The only consistency is that Garrett was always second. Contrast against the last hike with Ella and Garrett which involved just as much elevation gain, but only two brief breaks.

The originally stated goal for this adventure had been to climb Mt St Helens, then circumnavigate it on the Loowit Trail. By the time we reached a sensor array our pace meant this wasn’t likely to happen. No one cared. The day was clear and now windless. We could see for hundreds of miles. Some chose to leave their packs at the sensor array to finish the climb without camping gear. I finished the mashed yams I’d taken from the Thanksgiving leftovers. We ascended the last three ridges.

Several times we leap-frogged with strangers. Jolly would usually bark at them the first time and we’d have to call him back, but would warm up the the stranger on subsequent passes. Jolly was an excellent climber, bounding up rocks which the humans navigated using hands for balance. He would pace back and forth while we practiced the rest step, a mountain climbing technique to walk sustainably without sweating. Once at a distance I saw what appeared to be a hiker with light brown hair and a green shirt. It was Jolly partially obscured by rocks his long hair looking like a shaggy haircut and green side bags appearing as a shirt.

The hiking surface changed on the final ridge where the summer and winter routes overlap. In some places the snow, instead of being an inconsequential covering over grippy rock, was now a mortar between polished, pebble-sized ice balls making for beautiful and treacherous travel. There were fields where every disturbance in the dirt served as the nucleus of a wind loaded snow sculpture.

Which way do you think the wind blows?

The top was spectacular. You could see forever. The air was still. The direct sun let us me relax, even if I still had a puffy on. Jolly doesn’t have a particularly refined sense of safety and meandered close to the vertical drop into the crater. I teased Emily about being such a dog mom and she motioned over to the caldera’s edge for a surprise. Ben pointed out all the mountains he’d climbed and ones he still wanted to. We tried to identify obscure mountains in the North and South cascades. Ella and Garrett started planning a ridiculous trip to do an “Infinity Loop” (hike half way around a mountain, then over it, then the other half around, then over again to return to the start) of each and connect all the big mountains into a single hike.

Just one of several landscape dominating volcanoes.

Garrett and Emily put on flexible crampons which we hadn’t worn on the way up (I’d say Microspikes like everyone else but I significantly prefer a competitor) and walked over to the actual summit. Ben discovered he’d left his traction devices at the sensor site. We admired the view endlessly. Everyone but our group seemed dressed for a more intense adventure, many with crampons, snow shoes, ice axes, and ski goggles or glacier glasses.

What a good crew.

Ben lead the descent to get a head start since he had to cross the slippery ice pebbles without traction. Garrett tried to blaze a path in deeper snow where the footing would be less slippery but we doubled back to stay on the regular route for simpler route finding. Still, we missed the turn onto the winter route and were held up by a kind couple who asked us where the winter route was. I was adamant and vocal that we still on the portion where the winter and summer routes overlapped until someone spotted a hiker on the winter route above us. Half our group took off up hill and then overshot the turn off and had to come back down when Emily found the proper place to turn.

Back down at the sensor array we ate, not having had a proper lunch and it now being about 2:30pm. I’d brought and alcohol stove and spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for water to melt and then the fire to burn out. During this time I realized I’d brought one worse stoves from the batch of five that I’d made and tested that week.

Garrett and Ella, probably high off their inspirational and outlandish infinity loop scheme, proposed the idea of getting up at 2am to be able to hike almost the entire Loowit tomorrow. I nixed the idea as cleanly as I could. The trip had been too mellow and pleasurable to contemplate a committing and aggressive adventure tomorrow on low sleep. It was about 3:30pm when we left, an hour to sundown.

Garrett probably explaining a hairbrained and wonderful scheme.

The plan we ultimately agreed on was to get down to the Loowit and hike counter-clockwise towards June Lake then camp near there. The descent spread us out in pairs, each pair conversing as we picked our way down the rocks. We met up on the lowest ridge but Garrett and Emily were talking about climbing and we weren’t particularly hurried in our departure.

Eventually we did get to the Loowit trail and take a left. It was easy to follow in the trees. Ben was in the lead as we went out onto the boulder fields and managed not to turn an ankle or break a leg despite there being just enough snow to make the rocks slippery and hide the holes between them. We were moving well but not fast enough to get to June Lake by sundown.  Eventually, I spotted a flat area below the trail, we all gave Ben, who was in front, different directions on how to get there but he hiked another hundred yards or so and found that the bank of a gully created an easy path down to it.

The first order of business was getting the tents up. We were spread out in the trees wherever we could find flat places. A common cooking area was set up but Emily had been excited to try her new sleeping bag. Apparently it was good enough that she decided to stay in her tent to eat the lasagna dinner she’d brought while describing it loud enough for the rest of us over in the kitchen area to hear. Ben stayed in the tent too and shouted his highs and lows out to us. On any trip with Ella you will be required to say highs and lows. There are rules too: go clockwise, lows first, nothing sappy, nothing about the current moment. I can’t remember what my stated low was but after dinner I had to used an improvised blue bag and that was definitely the low.

I had my alcohol stove back out and was trying to melt water which was taking a very long time. I had brought a normal backpacking stove but finished off a fuel canister and didn’t want to start on open another. The alcohol stove was difficult to light with a lighter and I tried matches. They didn’t light easily against the box so I took to lighting the matches with a lighter. This wasn’t as successful as it should have been and the others enjoyed watching me fail at simple tasks. When I finally got the stove lit and had melted water for dinner, I poured more alcohol directly onto the stove so I wouldn’t have to light it again. A little spilled out but the fire was surrounded by snow and had no place to go. We started warming our hands and wet feet over it. Steam rose from Lizi’s socks. With the fire slightly outside the stove, and us treating it like a campfire, we realized that some twigs over the the top would give us a campfire. Wood was gathered with great purpose and soon we had a much nicer fire to dry socks and feet. No major gear damage occurred in the process. It was sublime. We loudly proclaimed our joy so the tented folks would hear. They never responded, probably because they were catching up on sleep lost the night before.

Moments later, we realized that we could just build a campfire.

Saturday

Jolly was the first up the next morning. I heard someone calling him and the sounds of a dog running around. Eventually I heard people moving but that died off. Finally it was light and I decided to be a good teammate and not keep people waiting. All the tents were still up when I poked my head out. The tents were still up when I’d packed up and settled on to my foam pad in the kitchen area to eat breakfast. It turns out that Garrett and Ben had been up to see the sunrise but been nice and not woken anyone up. Jolly had been contained after he’d escaped. I was the first one willing to impose my wakefulness on others.

The few short miles back to the Sno Park and our cars were passed much as the rest of the trip had been, in conversation. The morning was clear, the snow brilliant, and our spirits bright. I might have sung if I’d have thought of something appropriate. Again, no one got hurt on the rock fields.

When we reached the parking lot, the traditional cries of mourning were sounded for the end of a wonderful trip (traditional at least on trips with Ella). We stood around talking in a circle for some time with our packs on. I managed to find my car key in the pocket of a jacket I wasn’t wearing (I’d lost it earlier) and at a lull in the conversation opened my mouth to end our gathering. Before I could finish a word, Ella cut in with “not yet”. Our circle shifted back into the sun which had moved enough since we’d finished that we were shaded. Conversation continued. At some point, many hugs and goodbyes were exchanged. It was like leaving your friends after a week of summer camp.

We signed out of the trail register and returned to our cars, only to form a caravan on the slow drive to get under the snow line. In time, the road separated us. Emily and Ben turned south to Oregon. Garrett pulled into the travel lane northbound for the long drive home. Lizi, Ella, and I pulled off onto a side road to lunch at a local diner. Some things could be drawn out just a little longer.

Issy Alps 100k (Nov 15-16, 2019)

Intro

  • This write-up has been dragging out too long. It started as a chronological outline I was going to turn into a narrative. For the sake of being done, I’m going to press Publish without transforming them or proof reading. Leave a comment if you want something clarified or corrected.
  • Route beta is in bold. My track with notes: https://caltopo.com/m/9KNE
  • Many thanks to Ella Raff (blog, 1st attempt, 2nd attempt) for using the phrase “Issy Alps” to describe an ultra-running route and then, after I ran a  43mi route from Cougar to Rattlesnake tagging all the summits along the way, clarified that there was an official route by that name.
  • Unsupported: carried about two 500ml soft bottles, 7500 Calories, a fleece, hat, gloves, poles, and raincoat in a large running vest. Drew water from natural sources without filtering.
    • I would recommend 2L water or scouting water sources ahead of time.
  • Official Issy Alps Run page.
  • All Pics

Mailbox

  • What have I gotten myself into? (Photo Credit: Ella Raff)
  • Dry on the way up
  • Set headlamp to lowest setting.
  • started hitting some fog
  • changed into rain coat near the treeline
  • moderate wind, low visibility (fog) above treeline
  • thankful for the steps through the rock field
  • 1:50 at the top
  • On top of Mailbox.
  • light rain on the way down, nothing really below treeline
  • lost the trail where it multi-trails
  • tried to go up but couldn’t find something which stayed as a trail so decided to go down
  • trail was nearby on my watch but eventually separated enough from it that it was clear I needed to tack left instead of right
  • Filled water where there’s a clear 5ft spur trail to the stream near the bottom
  • cloudburst just as I got to the gate leaving Mailbox – convenient place to put the raincoat back on. ~3hrs

Connector

  • First section with real rain
  • slight uphill. Chose to take a “if you wouldn’t run it at the end, don’t run it now” approach
  • worried about downhill from the Granite Creek Connector b/c I’ve slipped a lot on that before
  • Turn off onto social trail to CCC road is immediately after the bridge. As soon as the bridge’s side turns to guardrail, step over it and look down. You should be just in front of a brown roadsign. Initially descends towards bridge (for 10ft) then turns right.
      • Just crossed the bridge. Step over the guardrail. See this sign. Now look down. There’s the trail (not pictured)
    • Small stream you cross shortly is muddy
  • easier to follow than expected, visibility was moderate
    • There’s a stream crossing where the bank has collapsed on the far side, you have to look up a bit to see where the trail continues. The water looked good here.
  • less muddy than expected but I was able to jump over a few spots which I knew weren’t well drained
  • Very happy to see CCC road, spent a lot trying to figure out what it would take to get back to 3mph average
  • Jogged up until the turnoff for Teneriffe Falls

Kamikaze Trail

  • Drew water at the falls. It was a little hard to find the correct switchback to drop off to get the water. It’s short (10ft) but steep.
  • Kamikaze trail is easy to follow because there’s no to get off trail.
    • Felt very steep but wasn’t hard because it was it was technical enough (hands help to support a big step up in a few places, but not class 2) and visibility was low enough that I wasn’t pushing.
  • At one point I my watched beeped and I had an 1:08 mile.
  • Found my way to the top. Easy to see where to get to but stone is a little steep and was wet. Fog prevented any good pictures
    • No rain or wind for which I was really thankful. In my head I was 2/3 through the first 50k (by elevation) and felt like I was past the dangerous parts. At least the first 50 felt doable for the first time.

Teneriffe Connector through Talus Loop

  • was a little concerned that I was starting back down the Kamikaze Trail. I’ve seen people think that the new trail was the old trail and was worried about making the opposite mistake
  • Water in two or three places when the trail turns into an old forest road
  • It look longer to get down to the Talus Loop turn-off than I expected once the old forest road turned down hill into switchbacks after the signed intersection. This was actually one of the most mentally “itchy” sections because it was easy enough that my mind began to wander past the immediate need to stay place my feet, visibility was good enough to see nearby terrain and I kept guessing at the turn-off.
    • “All of an ultra runner’s problems come from the inability to run only the ten feet immediately before them” (apologies to Blaise Pascal)
  • There’s drainage where there’s usually water on the Talus Loop, but I’d only ever taken the lower part of the loop. If it hadn’t been raining, the drainage would have been dry. I drew from a slowly flowing, clear puddle which was too shallow to completely fill my bottles. Cameling up would up when I did stop for water was an important part of being able to carry only one liter.
      • Town from the Talus Loop

Big Si

  • This was much shorter than I’d been mentally prepared for. That’s kind of a theme of the trip: things not being as bad as the life threatening monstrosities my imagination had built them into. Minimal rain helped.

Old Si

  • Quality of travel is quite good. Relatively few rocks and roots. A little steep and tight to fly down but would be a real pleasure to hike if you can control your effort level.
  • At this point, I was calculating miles to the finish of Little Si. Again, playing this game reduced my mental game when things were a little longer than I’d expected.
    • I’d been hoping for 12 hrs as an A goal. 13hrs was my B goal because that’s when I guessed Ella had done. Didn’t really want to have 14hrs because that was the time from the week before and she’d described it as “slow”. I didn’t want to be the slow one!
      • I didn’t let this trick me into pushing. I kept the long game in mind and let the time fall there it might but I felt pressure going into Little Si.

Little Si

    • One good water source shortly after turning onto the Little Si trail where a shallow stream runs under a culvert. I’ve seen this running in many seasons but it might dry up in late summer.
    • Little Si is popular and so has a lot off well beaten paths which aren’t quite the primary trail. This is different from the route up to this point point where were 0 or 1 candidates for the main trail. Several times, I hit dead ends and had to back track 5-10 feet.
    • Little Si is runnable if you have energy. I didn’t and it rolls enough and has enough roots and rocks that I never really found a rhythm.
    • The sky was lightening when I reached the peak.
    • Saw my first person of the trip about half way down, overweight, hiking in Crocs, large day pack and breathing hard. I made so many judgements about and comparisons to them. It’s one thing to give in to lesser motivations when you have nothing else but despite a growing awareness that I was falling behind on my calorie intake, I was still usually running the flats.
      • The more I read about US history, this kind of comparison and judgement seems to the cement solidifying many social ills. It’s a hard moment to recognize yourself in the face of the enemy.
    • There was enough light at the bottom of Little Si to take a selfie with the sign but not enough to turn off the street lights.
    • 50k was over and it felt good. I’d had a lot of apprehension going in to the experience never having pulled a true all nighter, even without doing more elevation in a 12hr period than I’d ever had before and with weather. I was mighty pleased with myself in an abstract, intellectual way. My mind was still on the course.
    • Done with 50k!

Snoqualmie Valley Trail

  • From the Little Si trailhead, I started walking the road towards the bridge and then took a left down the Snoqualmie Valley Trail.
  • The sunrise was really well matched with the easy start to second leg of my journey.
    • At this point, I was feeling good and hadn’t ruled out going for the 100miler so I couldn’t tell if it was the second of two or three legs.
    • I could tell that I’d under fed during the night. My raincoat was tight when I’d put it on over the pack and bottles which had made it hard to access the side pockets for food. At this point, my goal was to reset, so I pulled out trailmix, a food which I can’t stomach when pushing hard but is quite filling, and chewed mouthfuls until I could see my belly pushing out again.
    • I took a quick stop to re-arrange gear since it didn’t look like rain and I wanted to move my bag of Chex Mix up front where I could eat. Chex Mix is my go-to “real food” to balance out sweet tasting high energy gels and bars.
  • Ran several of the miles to Rattlesnake Lake but when I slowed to walk as the path neared the park, it was clear that my energy reserves were low, so I started eating generous amounts of Chex Mix.
  • At Rattlesnake Lake, I looked around for water fountains but couldn’t find any so drew water from the lake. The lake water was clear and tasted reasonably clean.

Rattlesnake

  • Going up Rattlesnake Ridge is well graded and easy. A nice change from the previous climbs. I saw lots of other trail runners out and about, though usually not as loaded with food and moving faster.
  • On the way up, I started losing motivation. Mental tiredness started creeping in at the edges of my eyes. I finally broke into the caffeinated gels. Boy did I feel good after that. I wasn’t necessarily moving faster but my mind was wonderfully clear, calm, and alert. What a wonder drug.
  • I followed the trail the whole way. From reviewing the official GPX, apparently you’re supposed to follow a road near the clear cut at the top for a bit and rejoin the trail. I don’t think it matters and George didn’t comment on this when I submitted my GPS track. It’s actually harder to follow the trail because it rolls more.
  • From the trail above the clearcut on Ratttlesnake. I think I was trying to take a picture of Rainier. There’s a road just below this which is the route proper.
  • As I descended, I kept a pretty close eye on the GPS because my memory is that the turn off the spine of the ridge is easy to miss. It’s actually not since you come out into a clear cut for the power lines.
  • Things can be a bit confusing from here so I watched the GPS pretty close. In several places there’s multi-trailing. The general idea is to follow the power lines.
    • There’s a place where you have to turn right onto a bike trail (this was a >90 degree turn for me) and follow it through the woods on the north side of the clearcut. There’re lots of trails in there so I was pretty shameless with the GPS. You can miss the initial turn off because the hillside is overgrown and steep so it’ll force you to turn back and find the bike trail.

Connection Across Raging River and Deep Creek

  • Continuing down from the power station by whatever path seems clearest will eventually pull left in the clear cut as it descends towards Raging River. Before descending low enough, I looked across the valley to get an overview of where I’d be going. It didn’t look like there was a clear trail but there was definitely an easiest way.
  • At raging river, the shallowest crossing was on the left side. Multiple crossings are flagged. Since the river was low, I scouted right a little bit hoping for a rock hop but wound up crossing almost directly under the road, then moved towards the green grass and let it carry me out of the river valley and towards Deep Creek.
  • In this section, the GPS track was just wrong. I just followed open areas which had clearly seen some foot traffic and generally headed in the correct direction.
    • There was one place where I had to turn right onto a cut which had been mowed, then turned left again when the trail picked up under the other power line.
  • Just before Deep Creek, there was a split where you could got up a 5-10ft bluff with a clear trail or descend a lesser used path. The lesser used path looked like it hit dense brush by the side of the river so I stayed on the nicer path. This wound a little and I had to duck as I walked through a tunnel of brush.
  • The trail appears to present multiple options for crossing Deep Creek. The most obvious one has a log in an awkward place which creates a pool which was deep enough to look uncomfortable but probably not deeper than I was tall. This can be avoided by ducking under a branch and crossing on the upstream side of the partially submerged log. I checked another crossing just downstream hoping for a dry foot rock hop and got most of the way across but didn’t see an exit up the cut bank.
    • I drew water from Deep Creek
  • From Deep Creek, the route stays left in the clear cut, start moving up steeply (not Mailbox/Teneriffe steep) until it connects to an almost flat road, the edge of which is a clear horizontal disturbance in the hillside above. The road is obvious when you’re on it but there are a few red herrings in the area which made me want to push right a little early.

South Side of Tiger Mountain

  • The road after the connection was wide, flat, level, etc… and I was able to jog again.
  • I passed a hunter out with a rifle over his shoulder. I didn’t know there was hunting in the area.
  • The turn off the road onto the Northwest Timber Trail is almost 180 degrees. There’s a road just above it which was much more obvious. I almost took the road since some cyclists were stopped in just such a position that they occluded the trail.
  • The trail remains relatively level. I was tired and so mixed some walking in with the jogging but felt bad about it, especially when I crossed paths with some other runners who were stretching. I felt awkward walking past with my overstuffed adventure vest, aggressively attacking the flat, level ground with my poles as though my trip was all show and no substance.
  • There was water in a stream just after the only switchback. This actually confused me for a moment because the switchback isn’t in the official GPX and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to just bushwack across. It looked like there was a better crossing below and in looking around for the best way down, realized the trail had switchbacked behind me.
  • The Northwest Timber Trail eventually crosses the Main Tiger Mountain Road (no signage, it’s just well kept forest road. You’re supposed to take the road. From here it’s a gentle up and up to the top of the mountain. I crossed and continued on the trail then had to double back when I noticed on my watch that I was diverging from the route.
  • I walked hard up the road but never really ran. One mountain biker passed me on the way up. I passed one mountain biker on the way up. Tie game.
  • Just before the top there’s a mountain bike trail, the East Tiger Summit Trail, which goes left. Don’t take it. I walked past it but my watch was ambiguous and made it look like maybe I was supposed to be on the trail. Since I knew it formed a loop, I took it thinking the course designers would have put in a loop instead of an out-and-back. On post-run inspection of the route, it appears this is not the case. I think my watch down-sampled the GPX file in a way which was confusing. Also, I had to dodge out of the way three times as mountain bikers whizzed past.

Descent to High Point Trailhead

    • At the top of Tiger Mountain I stashed my poles and prepared for what I thought would be about 3.5 miles down. My watch had logged about 59 miles and with 100km equivalent to about 62 miles, I figured that 63 plus a little was a safe guess for how long it would take me to get down. When I rain the Plain 100k, the same watch computed the course length as 63.3miles so I assumed things would come out the same here. If I could hold 5mph I’d finish under 23 hours. On the nice bike trails which I assumed would carry me back to High Point TH, that seemed like a slam dunk. With I’ll Make a Man Out of You from Mulan, playing in my head, I hobbled off the flat area at the top and let the angle of the hill coax a little speed out of my legs. Despite the mismatch between my performance and the chorus looping in my head, I was feeling good.
    • My watch read 22:57 when it rolled over to mile 62…. A quick glance at the GPS showed that I was nowhere near down the mountain. New goal: 24hrs. I guessed there were 3 to 5 miles left. Shortly thereafter, I turned left off the dirt bike trail at a hikers-only trailsign (Caltopo doesn’t show a trail here). The trail transformed into scuffs and footprints as it fell into a clearcut. It started raining again. Not even kidding.
    • The GPX in this section is just wrong. It gets you to a road, but I didn’t see anything continuing across the road so turned right downhill. The road is cut with deep perpendicular furrows every 15-30 yards so it feels like a BMX course. Fortunately, Gaia showed it linking up with the official GPX which went straight across the hillside. The last few bumps were grass covered instead of gravel with drops well over my head. This didn’t make for good travel and I was worried that it was going to carry on this way for some time. Shortly after rejoining the official GPX, a paved road appeared and I felt greatly relieved.
    • Gravel road with deep furrows.
    • This road is on the GPX and doesn’t have furrows and is back on the official GPX. The grass in the foreground is the end of the worst part of the previous road which wasn’t on the official GPX.

 

  • The road run doesn’t last for long. I stood for a moment looking at the gate where the Tiger Mountain Trail started. It looked thin and overgrown. The sun was getting low and I was definitely behind pace for a 24hr finish. I really didn’t want to be route finding in the dark but the trail condition seemed to suggest the possibility. Particularly hard to stomach was that based on a thorough examination of the route on Gaia, this would just link up with the road I was already on.
  • The Tiger Mountain Trail wound up being easy to follow but part way I stopped to take out my headlamp. I hadn’t charged it since I was expecting to be done before dark and was pleasantly surprised how little the battery had been drained by running it on low for 13 hours the night before. Now I left it on full brightness. It couldn’t be too long now and I didn’t want any missed turns. A 24hr finish time was still potentially in the cards when I got to the wider but still leaf covered trail beyond the exit gate of the Tiger Mountain Trail.
  • From here to the end, there were a number of turns. I would check Gaia on my phone, not trusting my watch to alert me to an upcoming turn, memorize the next few features and what to do at them, then try to get through them as quickly as possible. Initially I was cautious on the wet leaves. As the minutes ticked towards the 24hr mark, urgency manifested as faster and more reckless running. I gave myself permission to burn my legs out and started running the brief uphills.
  • One feature was the that a trail was going to join the Bootleg trail from the left for a short distance, then exit to the right. At the split, I needed to be sure to stay left. Looking at it now on Caltopo, it’s the Preston Trail which came in from the left. I remember this. I don’t remember seeing the West Tiger Trail exit to the right.
  • With about 10 minutes until the 24hr mark, I missed a turn by staying on Dwight’s Trail instead of turning right onto Lingering Trail. Given that the destination was High Point TH, my mistake was to assume that the 0.1mi to High Point Trail was the route. I caught the error on my watch after a few tens of yards and after running back to the intersection, realized that I hadn’t even seen the Lingering Trail on the right when I’d originally come to the intersection.
  • This was where I committed the final directions to memory, “At every intersection, turn downhill. At the road, sprint.” I made it to road and past a homeless encampment but I as ducking under the long arm of the gate, time rolled past 24hrs.
  • From here, I was on the road I’d driven in on and put in a good effort to get back to my car. I was worried that they might close the lot at sundown. I noticed the trailhead which marks the end of the Issy Alps 100k but didn’t think to stop because in my mind, the end was my car. At my car I stopped, then realized that the end was supposed to end at a trailhead but that I was in a parking lot and so dashed off to find something which looked like a trailhead. I stopped my watch in a clearing just off the parking lot where a kiosk stood, hoping that this would be acceptable end point. The elapsed time was 24hrs 9min 7s and it was around 5:40pm.
  • I had the track for the Issy Alps 100mi in my watch and Gaia but that ship had long sailed. I’d just gone my first night without sleep (in college, I always managed to get some sleep around 6am after an all nighter) and wasn’t ready for a second. I’d eaten through most of the 7500 Calories I’d stuffed into my pack and while there was a back-up stash of gels in the main compartment, it wasn’t nearly enough for another 35ish miles (my watch logged this “100k” as 66.7mi). This was an unsupported trip and so I’d only cached a soda in the trunk of my car as a finish line treat. This all certainly made a good excuse to call it quits. I was actually feeling pretty good all things considered.

Epilogue

  • Finishing celebrations were brief. I drank the soda and texted friends and family. The first replies were wonderfully supportive and snarky. I got my car outside the gate before replying to be sure I wouldn’t be locked in.
  • Within 10 minutes of finishing, I was on the road home. My legs tightened up and soreness which I hadn’t felt during the run set in. The balls of my feet ached enough that would naturally start easing up on the accelerator to relieve the pressure. This was not popular with the vehicles behind me.

Big Heart Lake (September 21-22, 2019)

Between running and hiking trips involving marathon or greater distances, it’s sometimes nice to have a small trip which doesn’t involve complete exhaustion. I’d reached out on Facebook, at work, and even a friend’s party to promote what I billed as a “beginner friendly” trip to Chetwoot Lake. Never mind the 5am start, 5,000 ft of gross elevation gain, and that the last 1.5 miles of the trip was on a primitive trail. Ultimately, the only folks to join were companions from some of these previous social trips. The start time got moved to 7:30am, we turned back after attaining the ridge where the trail turn primitive, but had some time to enjoy camp and didn’t have to spend as much time hiking in the rain on the way back.

The trail starts out from the West Foss River Trailhead quite level, if twisty, crosses two bridges and climbs slowly to a giant tree (Chris and Anda took turns hugging it) and then Trout Lake.

Giant Tree

Anda taking a picture of Trout Lake.

After Trout Lake the climb becomes steeper and switch backs get involved. The grade eases at the top and after a bridge crossing and a rock hop, you find yourself at Copper Lake. This uphill hike didn’t prevent a running conversation between Chris and Anda. I’d throw in a thought here or there but mostly content to listen.

A small bridge shortly before Copper Lake.

Our favorite discovery of the trip: Cheeto color occurs in nature.

Chris made a wrong turn at one point following an unsigned trail off to what was either a campsite or Malachite Lake. I debated letting him go but Anda had followed and it felt a little mean. I was amused that they turned off of a straight and well beaten trail for a less used one but I frequently reach the turn in a switch back and attempt to continue forward not realizing the trail has zagged under me so I can’t laugh too hard.

Chris and Anda taking pictures of Copper Lake.

We had lunch at Copper Lake. There isn’t much shade (the picture above is after we continued) and so we didn’t linger. A man in a Forest Service uniform came through carrying a bag of trash which he and a non-uniformed counterpart appeared to be collecting. We chatted them up, thanking them for their efforts. I asked what the most unexpected thing they’d ever found was. The man gave a clever answer which reflected on how times have changed but left some things to the listener’s imagination. Chris made him spell it out which was a little painful.

Apparently these are the inspiration for the Power-Up mushroom from the Mario video games.

Looking back during the the climb out of Copper Lake was the beginning of the fulfillment of my visual desires for this trip.

Little Heart Lake is barely a pond (or else we didn’t see it) and so we continued up and over to Big Heart Lake. This was steeper than I remembered but we weren’t moving fast so it was fine. The trail in this section is pushed around a great deal by underlying geological features. I felt much more of a guest of nature’s whim than a member of the race which invented bulldozers, graders, and asphalt.

Since Big Heart Lake wasn’t our destination our break there was brief. The walk-able shoreline extends very little beyond the log jamb at the outlet stream and so after a quick snack and chance to find where the trail properly continues after the Big Hear Lake outlet stream (my trip here last year did not make this connection easily), we continued up towards the ridge which separates Big Heart and Angeline Lakes.

The trail begins to become less well traveled as slightly more rugged though it’s still clear. However the trail splits where it turns south to climb the ridge west of Angeline. I Chris and Anda took the way with less immediate climbing though I was pretty sure we needed to go up. It was shortly thereafter that I remembered taking their way last year, it dead-ending, and having to go up hill instead. The problem is that the drop into Angeline lake, far below happens very quickly and anything which doesn’t get up on the ridge and stay there is cliffed out almost immediately. This is actually a great boon as the trail splits in several places in the area and even if you take a wrong turn, you’re pretty quickly turned back.

The southern part of Angeline Lake.

Eventually we attained the top of the ridge got the views I’d been hoping for. Big Heart spread out to the right, Angeline to the left. So much water and granite. It was now 4:27pm leaving about 2.5hrs of daylight. There had already been one concern voiced that the route was too rugged, particularly if it was going to rain on the return trip. We’d struck a deal to continue until 4:30pm then decide whether to turn back and the progress since then had been very slow and things were going to generally get rougher ahead. Since this was a pleasure trip, the right call was to turn around to keep everyone feeling comfortable.

The camera is looking almost straight down. When we turned around, the next move would have been through these rocks. The water in the top of the picture is about 500 feet below.

Melting mushrooms.

Anda also had a project to photograph all the mushrooms. The upturned mushroom on the right was holding water.

We camped just above Big Heart Lake and I got to set up my new tent. I’ve spent an excessive amount of time trying to figure out my next tent purchase and the initial impression was pretty good. The unique thing with this design (it’s supported by trekking poles) is the left pole is near your head and the right pole is near your foot. Most designs have them either in the same position with respect to your body (usually near the waist) or have a pup-tent/A-frame style with one pole centered above the head and the other centered below the feet. There are only two other tents I know of on the market with this design, both designed by experienced through-hikers. This is a more recent design, also by an experienced outdoors traveler, which takes a middle road between one some of the trade-offs I was agonizing over. This being my first night in it, my initial impression is that I got exactly what I wanted. The minor caveats are that it’ll be a little heavier after I switch the stakes for ones with better holding power and that setup was easier, though slightly less flexible than I expected. Either way, it made for a much more comfortable (if ~1.5lb heavier) experience.

New Tent! I pitched didn’t adjust the inner tent low enough and wound up stretching the bug netting slightly, though probably not enough to matter.

The camp next to ours had a hiker who was clearly playing the baseweight game and I hit it off with him over gear.

It rained a little during the night but not enough to be consequential and had backed off when we broke camp.

Anda likes her coffee in the morning.

During the hike back the rain slowly crescendo’d and was coming down pretty well by the time we were at the car. Alex, from the next campsite over, caught us and I wound up hiking ahead with him trading stories of hiking adventures. It was kinda funny since about when that happened Anda and Chris finally exhausted their conversational reserves and showed up at the car in silence. Conservation of conversation.

The ride home included a stop for burgers and milkshakes. A good end to a good trip.

All photos

 

Anacortes Crossing – Castle Pass Loop (Aug 31 – Sept 1, 2019)

Motivation

I’ve hiked Jackita Ridge to Devil’s Ridge a several of times. Near their intersection, there’s on the map labeled Anacortes Crossing. I’ve never seen a trail there. Solving that mystery was the purpose of the first leg of this trip (start clockwise from lower right on map below).

Second, having been up and down the East Bank trail of Ross Lake (left side of map below), I’d see the turn turn-off to Castle Pass, known it connected to the PCT, and wondered what lay in between. Now would be my time to find out.

Connecting with the East Bank Trail in the west and coming back to Hart’s Pass via the PCT in the east were to be sections of familiarity and comfort in this journey into the unknown. Also, I wanted to try to do this 75 mile loop in one through-the-night push as training for the Plain Endurance 100k, an unsupported run two weeks hence. In hindsight, the plan was ambitious and insufficiently researched. A more positive take might be that, unless you fail at something, you really have no idea where your true limits lie. Ultimately I chose to to slow down, enjoy the journey, and wound up with a cherished the adventure, which will probably give birth to many future trips.

Day 1 (Saturday)

I woke up in the back of my station wagon at 4:05am. That gave me 10 minutes to unglue my eyelids and and disable my the alarm on my phone before the panic inducing noise set to go off at 4:15am. I’m always slow breaking camp when camp is the back of my car. With more space and better shelter, it should be easier change clothes and compress gear into a pack from the back of a car than from under a tarp or inside a tent. Somehow it never is.

Sleeping in a car may make for slow mornings but other gear can be even more dangerous. In this case, a low volume hiking backpack designed to ride like a high volume running pack. Jogging with a hiking pack for any real distance is too uncomfortable because the pack bounces and sways. The wide, padded shoulder straps which fuse into a yolk behind my neck and the double chest straps sufficiently stabilize that, when full with my minimal camping kit (my preference to an emergency bivvy after spending a night on a rainy mountain top shivering in one) and a carefully counted 4800 Calories to fuel a 24hr sufferfest at 200 Cal/hr, I believed I could run the 75 mile route which I’d laid out starting eastbound from the trailhead kiosk where I stood, procrastinating by reading about the roads in the area. I knew the Anacortes Crossing would probably be off trail with a little bushwacking, but in the grand scheme of things that section was short and so might cost an extra hour or two but not severely throw off my larger plan to try and keep up a 4mph pace by running the flats and downhills.

At 4:45am, having read all there was to read on the kiosk, I started jogging down the Chancellor Road which drops several thousand feet to a stream, and provides access to several private mining claims and public hiking trails. I passed large camps with wall tents and burly trucks, sometimes with large fires and barking dogs. Around full light, I rock hopped across a small stream at a fork in the road and continued past a gate down a less frequented but still quite smooth forest road. This continued to a lower stream and over a bridge where I turned right at a trail sign with three trails to the left and only Sky Pilot Pass to the right.

The last of the well maintained trail.

From this point the trail the trail alternated was carefully built through rock fields and completely washed out where it neared the river. Someone had put great effort into this trail and it had been left to rot. Still, it was pretty easy to follow until about the point which on my GPS app said that the Anacortes Crossing route continued up valley and the Sky Pilot pass route, which was listed on the last trail sign, turned right across the creek and headed uphill. I have no idea where the route to Sky Pilot pass went, though there was a tree down across the stream in about the correct place to serve as a footlog if water were higher. As for my route, it was easy to spot where it went, but only if you knew it was supposed to be a trail there.

The Anacortes Crossing trail at the point where the Sky Pilot route turns right.

The trail wasn’t really a trail at this point, so I continued for a few hundred feet along the river, trying to keep an eye on the back where the trail used to go. The map said it would start climbing and I was hoping that it would become clearer and more consistent as it got well above the river bank. This wound up working out and I hopped on a faint trail leaving a small slide chute. The trail widened into what was clearly once a forest road, and while wide for a trail, not wide enough to avoid a number of small washouts. The washouts were slippery and loose only on the top layer and I was able to kick steps which held without much crumbling. I found it comforting to see scuffs here and there from someone’s previous sojourn.

With a sign like that, there was definitely once a trail here. I’m curious why it was abandoned.

Example of a small washout.

This lower section of the route appears to once have been a forest road.

On the map the route has a few initial switchbacks, then climbs slowly in a traverse to a nose where switchbacks resume until cresting the ridge. From there it drops to join the Jackita Ridge trail just as the Jackita Ridge Trail turns west to climb up to Devil’s Ridge. All things considered, the those first set of switchbacks and the beginning of the traverse were much like other abandoned trails I’ve followed: faint and washed out in places, but easy enough to follow and usually good travel. That changed somewhere in the middle of the traverse.

The middle section of the Anacortes Crossing route traverses across several large rock slides which have filled in with alder. Mixed in with the alder are plants with broad leaves and thick stems covered in thin needles. All sign of the road disappears. I relied heavily on my GPS in this section and strongly considered turning back. The situation eventually resolved when, after cutting uphill, I found myself staring at what looked very much like an overgrown passage. While overgrown, there was a clear path of least resistance. I’m not really sure how I found it but it was clearly the abandoned forest road, re-emerged.

While the passage was overgrown, there was usually a clear path of least resistance. There were places where alder had grown in the middle and I’d have to poke around a bit to figure where to go. I had the most success by realizing that in this section the route was something of a ditch under the plants. Trying to visualize where that ditch went and ignoring the direction that that the plans pushed me made navigation easier.

In one place, I was looking around when I spotted something red embedded in the grass layer. It was an ice axe. Someone had stood exactly where I now was. This made it emotionally easier to follow the tunnel-you-had-to-imagine through the foliage. The ice axe would draw a range of reactions from a park ranger’s concern to a through-hiker’s curiosity. I guess a most trail runners don’t have poorly secured self arrest tools hanging out of their packs.

The overgrown forest road eventually crossed a stream. I’d started with 3L of electrolyte solution formulated to give a calorie drip which the manufacturer claims can replace the need for solid food during athletic endeavors. It seemed to be working as advertised but left my mouth feeling dry. My next water supply was supposed to be a spring near the Jackita Ridge – Devil’s Ridge intersection which I’d seen flowing last year relatively late in the season. Not wanting to carry extra weight, I did the pushup-and-suck-up drinking method so I wouldn’t have to take my pack off. Then I took my pack off so I could stash the ice axe, which I’d been carrying in hand, into my pack’s mesh outer pocket. Conveniently, the ice axe had come with a guard on the point. 10ft later, the protruding ice axe hooked on something I was crawling under and so I decided to just carry it in hand again.

After crossing the stream, the route enters it’s third phase, a set of switch backs up a nose to the top of the ridge. The old forest road quickly disappeared but at this point but route finding was simple: go up. The only subtlety was to stay out of dense brush but even in that regard, things were pretty easy as the ground cover was sparse in most areas.

No trail? No problem. Just go up.

Eventually the slope began to get even steeper and the vegetation denser. The surface shifted from dirt to a more rocky soil and tall trees gave way to shorter ones  intermixed with larger shrubs. Hard decisions were going to have to be made. Then, out of nowhere, I was standing on the trail I’d left several thousand feet below.

I’m not sure where this came from but I was glad to see it.

The trail led up and to the north side of the nose, quickly breaking into the open. There were views of the top. There was no more ground cover to block passage, just a traverse up. The trail stuck around for a while but disappeared near a rocky stripe of ground which lead pretty close to the top.

There’s an end to the bushwhacking!

At the top, I could see the valley from which the Jackita Ridge starts it’s climb to the Devil’s Ridge trail. I remembered looking up toward this exact spot many times and wondering how any trail went there. The sides looked so steep. It turns out that there isn’t really a trail. It’s what I think is called a scramble. You can, as I discovered, find a way down which doesn’t technically require the use of your hands. The rock at the top is well enough swept that it forms something of an erratic staircase and you can see the scuffs and erosion from the lines others have picked.

What hands will do for you, however, prevent you from sliding on your but in the scree. I’m probably not the first unintentionally do a “rock glissade” after a minor loss of balance. It was just for a few feet but I was surprised how much the small rocks making up the scree acted like snow. I made my way down to where repeated passage had mashed a contour line had been mashed into the scree. Some number of people have clearly come this way but only the places which hold a mark well that show it. Others get covered by erosion or are too strong to get scuffed in the first place. The trail through the ground cover which picks up where it exist the scree field soon disappeared and I went tromping over ankle high plants in a shallow descent to where I knew the Jackita Ridge trail would be rising up from the bowl below.

The Jackita Ridge trail comes up through the center of the bowl and out the right side staying under the scree field. There’s a social trail in right side of the scree field where the Anacortes Crossing descends.

Around 10:30am I saw my first humans for the day at the Jackita Ridge Trail where the Anacortes Crossing would join it if the Anacortes Crossing were a trail. The trail turns slightly and there’s a sign saying Granite Cr Trail in one direction and Jackita Ridge in the other. No way to get lost if you’re on the main course. However when the two women at the “junction” (which is just a single trail) saw me walking down towards them across the hillside, they stopped and pulled out maps. “We just wanted to be sure we were going the right way” they said. I assured them that they were and that trail I’d been on was long abandoned and they couldn’t stray onto it by accident.

Now that I was on level, well maintained trail, it was now time to continue running so that’s what I did. My legs were still good despite the steep climb on the east side of the crossing and I kept the pace slow and comfortable. Things didn’t start to fall apart until the spring at the Jackita Ridge – Devil’s Ridge intersection turned out to be dry. I was carrying water in bladder inside my pack and so had no idea how much I had left but continued since there wasn’t really any other option. There was no wind and while the sun was out, it felt cooler without a hat since I could feel the sweat in my thinning hair cooling the top of my head from relative wind created by my body passing through the still air.

I have a bad history with Devil’s Dome (a previous out-and-back to it turned into a 17hr ordeal with an upset stomach which I made worse by refusing to turn around) and history now maintained continuity. As I hiked up, I began to feel low on energy and an empty-but-not-hungry unpleasantness in my stomach which is a hallmark of my long distance running experience. I probably hadn’t been getting enough calories and there was a vague exhaustion haunting me. I’d been popping peanut butter M&Ms and my water was caloric but something was just not right. I lay down for a bit at the top with my head in the shade of a shallow wind break someone had built. There was no other shade. It was 7 miles to Ross Lake and the next guaranteed water but I let myself suck on the drinking tube until my water bladder ran dry. I felt a little better and ate some more PB M&Ms. I was now on a popular route and so I wasn’t worried about anything going desperately wrong but I had big plans for the trip and this was not going to help.

Looking back east before the last rise to Devil’s Dome. The trail comes up from the the bottom-right of the frame.

The wind break at the top of Devil’s Dome. Looking South at Jack’s Mountain.

Moving on. Not feeling great but not because of the view.

Devil’s Ridge descends gently for a mile or so before switchbacking down to Ross Lake. I tried to keep a gentle jog going. It was a downhill after all and if I couldn’t jog here, where could I?

One person I passed asked if I were just out running the Devil’s Ridge Loop as a day hike. At some point, one of my steps missed the trail (an early drop off was hidden by the base of waist high tree) and I fell, bending my right trekking pole in the process. I was pretty well out of sorts now. My legs had already been covered in minor lacerations from bushwhacking in the gym shorts I wear for running. Now I was going to lose a trekking pole for the uphills (loose mental math said there were still 14-15 kft of climbing) and wasn’t managing my energy levels well due to some combo of water, food, and heat which I couldn’t quite figure out. Worse yet, my legs were beginning to get tired and I was only 20 miles in. That last part should have been predictable. Even when I try  preserve strength during a long run, my legs start feeling like they’re beginning to break down about 20 miles. One way or another, I was out of sorts enough to hike past someone I recognized from a project at work with just a cursory and awkward greeting instead of a proper stop and chat you’d expect when recognizing someone in such an unexpected place. Fortunately, the vanguard of their group had informed me there was a good water source around 4100ft. I intended to get there quickly.

My last awkward interaction before reaching the water source was with a young woman carrying an ungainly external frame pack who I happened upon while she was struggling to get over a downed tree. I stopped short so she’d have space maneuver on her own. After her attempt failed, I asked if she wanted a hand. There was a long pause during which we made solid eye contact then she let out an awkward laugh and said, “are you waiting on me?”. Maybe she hadn’t heard my offer. I vaulted the log and went on my way trying to figure out what line of thinking causes someone to wear convertible hiking pants at full length paired with a bikini top. Hopefully she didn’t think that was why I’d stopped and was staring at her.

The small stream of water splashing noisily as it crossed the trail was wonderful. I didn’t feel deeply thirsty but drank like it. I could feel my stomach filling like a empty water sack, which isn’t good because too much water on an empty stomach after exertion can cause nausea. Little did I care. I’d noticed that I felt much better when passing through shade and so took a few minutes to sit and cool off. My appetite didn’t return but I ate a little more. I probably should have dug into my food bag for something other than PB M&Ms. Maybe that would have kickstarted things.

I kept up a jog as best I could but by now my legs really were beginning to get tired. I got down to the East Bank trail and turned north. In places my jog turned to a shuffle which is a sign that you might able to go faster by walking. I would try to relax and lengthen my stride. Put a little more effort in. Carry the speed between the bumps. Endure.

Ross lake was about 40 ft below normal.

The East Bank trail is familiar from many out-and-backs. Some good like my first 30+ mile day after knee surgery. Some not so good like when a friend and I spent a night in emergency bivivies in the rain near the top of Desolation Peak and then bailed out the next day because I was having nascent stomach issues. On the spectrum, things were at the good end of the bad side of the spectrum. I was moving. I was even able to move uphill though I resented it. The trail climbs a little to dodge around the base of Desolation Peak and it was more than I remembered.

I crossed paths with a back country ranger who made conversation as I tried to step by. She was out checking permits on her first patrol in the North Cascades, originally being a climber from Alaska who was now tired of rotten rock and crevasses. She asked where I was going and I said down the Castle Pass Trail. She named a few peaks and asked if I was climbing them. No, I was just going to connect back to the PCT. Good, the ice-axe and trail runners was a combo which worried her. Did I have a permit? No? For next time… I explained I was going to outside the park boundaries. Where had I come in from? Hart’s Pass. Via Anacortes Crossing. It’s also outside the park. She turned off the audiobook which had been playing on her phone (she’d taken her earbuds out when we’d approached each other). Confusion and a bunch of place names I didn’t recognize followed. I pulled out my map and showed the route but probably didn’t lay out enough markers she recognized. Then I showed her on her phone app. Then we traded a few more pleasantries. She was going to get to sleep in the fire watch tower because watchman had the night off. We said goodbye and went our separate ways.

The trail finally descended to Lightning Creek. There’s a boarded up cabin, which I remembered, but no latrine, as sign for which I thought I’d seen on a previous trip. A hurried cat hole was dug. The shadows were beginning to get long and as I opened my food bag for dinner, I was tired in mind and body but still didn’t feel like eating anything. I ate some salty, orange-red, peanut butter sandwich crackers in small bites and looked at the elevation profile. I’d made it 30 miles. In a perfect world, I’d wanted to be 48 miles in at this point, over the two climbs which make up the Castle Pass trail and onto the broad, gentle, PCT for going into the night hike. Barring that, I’d hoped to be on the second, much smaller hill on the Castle Pass elevation profile. Instead, it was three miles to a probable campsite and the base of the longest continuous climb of the trip which covered six miles. There were something like two hours of daylight left.

When things go well, this is about the time of day when I get a second wind. It happens so regularly that I’ve come to expect it. The temperature begins to drop and my stride lengthens. I can rage up a hill knowing that my reward at the top will be rest for the night. That wasn’t happening though. I’d burned through most of the day and barely made it above a walking pace. I didn’t feel depleted but I didn’t have an appetite. Pushing through the night wasn’t an option, I needed to sleep before tomorrow. But two thirds or three quarters of the gross elevation gain on this trip was ahead of me and that wasn’t something I could do tomorrow. Not even on a good tomorrow. That much elevation had take me 18hrs on a 68 mile course and though there were only 45 miles remaining, I wasn’t in shape to push like I had in that race. Then there was the rain which had been forecast but hadn’t shown up today.  Weather is unpredictable in the North Cascades. The Castle Pass trail appears to run several exposed ridges. Trying to make it up the big climb tonight to get tomorrow’s elevation gain under 10,000 ft might leave me sleeping on a treeless ridgeline. The first flat place the topo map promised was a thin saddle 3,000 ft up. Last year, I’d camped on a wide saddle with the tarp I now carried. It had mostly held up in the wind but a stake had pulled out and I’d needed to set it again. Now I was only carrying 6 stakes to save weight, not the full complement of 8 stakes. Finally there was the issue that I’d seen a map where the Castle Pass trail was marked as poorly maintained. What if I went up in the night, the rain came, and I lost the trail in the dark but the terrain was too steep to camp. Decisions, decisions. Decisions that could be made three miles from now. I packed up and walked on. The trail was slightly up which was an excuse not to run but in truth it was mostly flat and I chose not to run anyways.

About 1.5 miles later, a stream crossed the trail and I stopped to draw water, eat again and rest again. There was just an hour of daylight and a little over a mile until decisions had to made. My appetite returned a little and I began feel a little better. Maybe salty cracker sandwiches were tastier than PB M&Ms. Maybe I was cooling off.

I came to a fork in the trail. There was a small stick planted in it. The right side was clearly a spur trail to a camp by the river. The left was clearly the an uphill jaunt which lead to a rising traverse, which lead to the base of the switchbacks. Decision time. It came down to the weather. If the weather was nasty, I’d want to deal with that tomorrow, maybe even bail, though that would be long and would require a very difficult hitch. If the weather were good, the reward of walking a ridge into a rising sun would be glorious. The clouds were gathering, but slowly, ambiguously, as they often did in the evening. I killed the route tracking app on my phone which was draining the battery. Things hadn’t gone well today, not well enough that I’d care to share the trip on social media. More importantly, I might need that battery if things didn’t go well tomorrow. Another pause. It was a roll of the dice. I went left.

The climb was easily graded, the trail well cut, and I leaned into it. The 450 Calories of crackers I’d eaten in the last two hours kicking in enough for full strides. It wasn’t an uphill charge but it was some kind of victory over the afternoon’s ponderous efforts. I was just going to the saddle 3,000 ft up, I constantly reminded myself, not the full climb of 4,500 ft, I’ve already made my compromise, now it’s time to follow through. The low but rising traverse to the switchbacks had taken a bite out of the climb. Just after dark, I was up a thousand feet. Around 8:30pm, I bonked and had to sit and eat but the angle of the slope was beginning to flatten as slopes typically do near the top of hills. Around 9pm I found a small, mostly level spot just wide enough to kinda pitch my tarp and level enough that I probably wouldn’t slide out from under it. I tucked in for the night and set my alarm for half an hour before sunrise. This hadn’t turned out to be the running trip I’d wanted but I could still make a hike worth remembering.

Day 2 (Sunday)

I didn’t rain. I woke up  and broke camp efficiently. My legs were seriously sore but not in a deep, exhausted way. It turns out that if I’d held out for another hundred yards or so, I’d have made it to an ideal campsite. It didn’t matter, my gamble had paid off and the morning was everything I wanted.

A ridge walk by morning or evening light is really one of the best experiences hiking has to offer. Pictures don’t capture the experience but I don’t have a lot to say about the next few miles other than that life was good.

The first of the Castle Pass Trail’s ridge walks ends with a descent into a drainage. At first there’s a trail through the grass but turns into a dry rivulet bed. I knew the trail was supposed to cross the creek which was gathering in the moderately steep drainage, then descend with it. Just beyond, however, that was a thicket full of alder which made the question of how far to descend unknowable as it would hide any signs of passage. The grass was knee high and shot through with what I assume were game trails. So many ways to go. I headed downhill, across the drainage in hopes of seeing a weakness in the alder thicket which might indicate a trail. There was some rustling in the bushes that may have indicated a ear on the side of the drainage from which I’d come. It was far enough away chose to just hold my course. I also kept an eye on the GPS to prevent me from dropping significantly below the elevation where the trail begins to work its way out of the drainage. Things looked like were going to get pretty steep when a trail appeared almost in front of me. It continued straight down for a bit before beginning to tack left and then into a small but distinct opening in the alder. The trail was slightly overgrown but nothing to compare with the Anacortes Crossing from the previous morning. That said, pushing through the bushes didn’t help my bare legs, already pretty torn up from yesterday’s bushwhack.

Do you see a trail? Neither do I.

I started the descent somewhere up there.

The trail leveled out and after a time came to a section where there had clearly been a trail crew. I was so excited I took a picture.

Looks like someone came through here with a lawn mower.

I ran across a trio of backpackers who had stopped and were looking down the trail in my direction. I think they had heard me pushing past overhanging bushes and thought I might be a bear. Before I saw them I thought I heard a “hey bear” but I’m not sure. We traded tips on what was coming. Their lead hiker was wearing full length pants. I saw them looking at my thrashed legs and one mentioned an upcoming thicket of salmon berries. I said that when the trail disappeared up the drainage they should figure out where their destination was and then just head straight up to it. They said that’s what they were expecting. The salmon berry thicket was maybe 10 yards across and the trail through it was well enough cut that I didn’t really get scratched. I hope they really were expecting what they were about to run into.

Looking up valley before crossing the stream and starting the second climb of the Castle Pass trail (eastbound).

I gathered water and ate at a stream running through the valley before staring the next climb. My appetite was back and I had big handfuls of delicious PB M&Ms. It’s oddly good to be hungry. Looking at my food supply, it was clear that there might be problems later since I hadn’t planned for two full days. For now, I wanted to stay full and happy. If I was going to bonk, that could happen later when I’d have the impending end of the trip to help pull me through. Based on yesterday’s unintended rationing, rationing now would cause problems sooner rather than later.

From that stream, the trail switchbacked up for a bit but soon turned into a long up-sloping traverse which turned into a ridge walk. It was near mid day so the colors were a little washed out but it was really nice. I tried to put off thinking about what the rest of the day was going to look like. There were 27 miles once I hit the PCT and that’s a lot for an afternoon.

Ridge walks are the best, even when not in soft light.

Yay! More ridge walking. Much better than a treed traverse or soul sucking switchbacks.

At noon, almost exactly, I came to the PCT. I’d been playing the dangerous game of using hunger as a motivation to get to a destination where I then satiate it. Eventually, I felt like I’d pushed it a little too far and I should really just stop and eat immediately to maintain energy and metabolism. I checked the GPS so I could make plans while eating. The PCT was less than a tenth of a mile ahead over mostly level ground. I’d forgotten that Castle Pass is a low, flat, completely forgettable spot which shares nothing in common with the high, narrow, steep places which the word, “pass” typically brings to mind.

Castle Pass in all it’s glory or a trail intersection in the middle of nowhere? You decide.

I’m just one person but I felt like three people’s worth of foolish for biting off more than I could chew on this trip.

Lunch was as brief affair as it tends to be when the options are PB M&M or PB cracker sandwiches. By 12:10pm I was heading south on the PCT back to Hart’s Pass. 27 miles to my car along a trail which felt like home. The first few steps reminded me that the PCT is so well maintained and so gently graded. My head was spinning with mental math. At 3mph, I could be back to my car by 9pm, only an hour after full dark. If I could push that, maybe before dark. The PCT was so gentle. Such a soft and blessed trail. 3mph was what I’d averaged while running the flats and downhills the day before. I just needed to not bonk.

The next three hours were a flying hike through a highlight reel of good views and great memories from my 2016 PCT hike.

Hopkins Pass. The trail rolls from the east side of one hill to the west side of another without a major change of course. It’s a pretty unusual pattern to see.

Gentle climbs which build anticipation about the views to be revealed at the top.

I ran across a number of PCT hikers about to finish their trips. Mostly I just said a brief congratulations. They wanted to get to Canada. I wanted to get to my car and it’s unlimited food supply (a Coke and mostly full bag of Chex Mix). If only there were more time I would have loved to hear all their stories and reminisce.

Left: Dairy Queen class of 2016. Right: Dairy Queen (his secondary trail name) class of 2019.

Even over rugged mountain passes, the PCT is gentle.

Despite keeping most conversations brief (there were some exceptions such as when I gave some weekenders water or listened to an elderly section hiker’s stories about knee issues) I was behind schedule by 4pm and so started running the downhills again. My legs were not feeling good but neither did I feel like dragging this trip out long into a second night. A little before 4:30pm, I had 15 miles to go, and with dusk starting around 7:30pm, I tried to turn it into three 5 mile one-hour runs. Things started out well with a speedy power hike up the first of several small hills. Then energy problems kicked in. I had to sit and eat. My last food came out of my food bag and went into the easily accessible bottom pocket of my pack. I was running on empty and the plan was to eat only when necessary to stave off bonking. Still, I was going to finish, the question was only how pleasant the end would be.

I tracked progress via the elevation profile, checking off each rise as I crested it, then jogged the flat and downhill to the next rise. The jogging was slow. At full energy, I could have run almost the entire section is t was so gentle. At least it was pretty.

I used the hunger-as-motivation game to get myself up Jim Pass, the penultimate rise. Not a hard climb by any means and I moved well but my strides weren’t long like they could have been. At the top, I needed to sit and eat. I’d pushed it just a little too far and had to nibble the breakfast crackers which I’d saved for last. They advertised 4 hours of continuous energy. Despite knowing that this wasn’t going to be my experience, I’d pretended they were going to be my ringer, enough calories to finish the trip, as long as it took me less than 4 hours.

The 10 minute break had stiffened my legs so that I had to hobble until they warmed up. My body had chilled as well and it took over a mile to get the warmth of exertion back into my hands. I didn’t have the desire to try and run any more, I just wanted to walk it out. At 7 miles, that would be 2h 20min to 3h 30min depending on pace. It’s strange how the relatively small proportion of something at the very end can seem so long. I suppose a watched pot never boils either.

Looking north from Jim Pass. The broad valleys kinda remind me of parts the Brooks Range trip earlier this summer.

A particularly picturesque bit of trail through the trees, just south of Jim Pass.

Nightfall came softly leaving a peach colored smudge on the horizon and just enough light in the sky that I didn’t have to stop and pull out my headlight. A few times I could see car headlights in the distance, on a road which I thought extended three miles up to Slate peak from where I’d parked my car. Every marker of progress was noted and rallied as an exhortation to continue.

Night falls. Still three-ish miles to go. I think. So near. So far.

In the dark I passed a trail junction. The broad, beaten trail lead to a parking lot and from there to a road down to where I’d left my car. That would have been the easy way. Still not wanting to stop the forward motion long enough to pull out the headlamp I turned down the less maintained path for those who wanted to hike between here and the lower parking lot a mile or more away. The path got a little rockier but stayed surprisingly even. Despite hiking by moonlight I never stubbed my toes. Even the poorly maintained part of the PCT can be hiked by moonlight.

I almost stopped for my headlamp near the very end. I was now in the trees and really couldn’t see what was under my feet. The trail was defined by a subtle color difference and interpolation between the more visible spots where the moon lit it up. I passed a few tents with their headlamps on. I knew I was being ridiculous but why stop now? I was so close to my car. What really made this minute any different from the minute before.

Xeno’s paradox came to mind. You can’t get somewhere until you get half way there. You can’t get half way until you get to half of that. The recursion continues. Maybe I’d never get to my car. In high school we learned that that limit for that sequence converged. I would get to my car.

I stepped into the clearing made by the Chancellor Road. I turned left. In a few steps I could see the butt of my car, it’s gold color distinct among the others in the small parking lot. In the dark I’d left it and in the dark I’d returned to it. I dropped my pack and fished my keys out of the food bag, popped the back door, and sat down. I didn’t feel relief. My focus on the return to the car had been masking depletion and a stomach unsettled by emptiness. The fight to suppress those had to continue.

The foresight to put a soda in my drop bag was unexpectedly prescient. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to eat, it was that if I put anything down my throat, I couldn’t tell whether or not it would come back up. One sip of sugary, caffeinated, carbonated beverage was an acceptable risk. A minute passed. I could chance another. It was a safer bet this time. After a third, the need to relieve what would soon be gas pain took priority. Fortunately, I’d passed through this campground three years ago on the PCT and while I had no memory of the toilet, I remembered where a trail angel had said it was. I shuffled over to the guard house and found the toilet around back. No toilet paper. Poking around I found the toilet paper behind a bag hanging over the toilet. Clever me. I sat down. Then I found the toilet paper which is where all toilet paper is kept, on a roller easily accessible from the throne. Clearly I was not operating at full capacity.

A while later, I was back my car, but could now stuff the Chex Mix into my face. The stuffing wasn’t stopping. Delicious, crunchy, salty comfort. After most of the bag was gone, I finished the soda. Only then did I have the desire to dig through my pack and pull out my air mattress, then my pillow, then my quilt. I closed the rear door and took off my shoes and socks. That smell was sufficient motivation wriggle up front, turn on the car, and crack the windows. When I finally closed my eyes, I could feel the eye balls under the eyelids. They weren’t moving erratically as they do when I shut them after staring too long at the computer screen. They weren’t dry as they feel when I close them to restore moisture. They weren’t exhausted, welcoming the eyelid closure as the fulfilment of their greatest desire. Somehow they were still straining to find the trail, to do their part to get me home. My rancid corpse relaxed happily under the soft quilt on the deep air mattress. It was some time before my eyeballs stopped trying to keep watch.

Klonaqua Lakes – July 20-21, 2019

This trip is the first of two weekends I set aside this summer to do fun, simple, easy trips. The kind of thing that friends who aren’t inclined to describe their ideal weekend as a “sufferfest” might enjoy. One of my goals was to justify the money spent on a flatwater packraft which I hadn’t used for it’s original purpose and so somehow wanted the trip to involve a water crossing. My original idea was to hike up one side of Ross Lake then paddle a short distance to one of the islands in the middle. The next day, we could come back the other side. Unfortunately, Ross Lake is over 40 feet below it’s normal depth and the islands are closed to overnight use. Back to panning around Caltopo looking for large blue splotches….

What I eventually spotted as a pair of lakes just west of the Enchantments. The Enchantments are an incredibly beautiful mainstay of the Washington hiking scene but also incredibly high traffic. The blue blobs on the computer screen in front of me, labeled Upper and Lower Klonaqua Lake, appeared to be accessible via a trail at the very end of the road and so I hoped they might be one of those places the crowds never quite got to. Why drive the extra half hour if you can go to a bigger, better known attraction on the way? A relative dearth of trip reports on wta.org seemed to support the notion.

The plan was to hike up to Lower Klonaqua Lake, inflate the packrafts, paddle across, deflate the packrafts, bushwhack up the outlet stream from Upper Klonaqua Lake, reinflate the packrafts upon reaching it, and then paddle to some place on the other side for camp. One friend signed up for expedition (I’m still learning that inviting people by adding them to a Facebook event has a pretty low conversion rate) and bought an Intex Explorer, a cheap pool toy which is perhaps better matched to the professionalism of this outing than the Supai Adventures MatKat whose price tag I was justifying.

Night 0 (Friday):

Anda picked me up after work and we drove several hours over Steven’s Pass to the trailhead. The was sun beginning to set as we pulled in. There were a surprising number of cars and even a pair of women hanging out in camp chairs, apparently planning on sleeping at the trailhead. Anda had done more research than I and discovered that there were campsites one mile in, near the confluence of French Creek and Icicle Creek which I guess explains the popularity. In hindsight, there are also a number of connecting trails making this a great start for point-to-point adventures.

We walked the relatively flat mile through the dark until a spur trail looked like it might turn off to a campsite. On the way, we had a minor disagreement over when to turn on headlamps. I like to keep mine off to experience hiking by moonlight as long as possible. Anda preferrs to turn her light on before dark so she can see where to put her feet. There was no disagreement that we needed headlamps to find a campsite. The first campsite was occupied but the spur trail appeared to go through and so we skirted it only to find it was for water access. We tip-toed back to the main trail to find another campsite. What we found was a spacious, well established site on the high bank of the creek which made for excellent camping. While I didn’t realize it until the next morning, horses like it too. I guess even with a headlamp, I’m not that observant.

Unfortunately, horseshit doesn’t rhyme with much so it’s hard to make a pun about this.

Day 1 (Saturday):

Anda isn’t a morning person and this was to be a camping (not hiking) trip, so I had breakfast and enjoyed the creekside vista for a while. Eventually, I decided 9am was late enough and whispered morning salutations and exhortations at her tent door until I heard stirring inside. The white noise of an active creek makes for restful sleep. I might have been up first but I certainly hadn’t been up early.

Lightweight camp chairs, unlike logs and rocks, are perfectly sculpted for the human backside. My packraft wasn’t the only piece of gear whose ownership I was justifying.

The trail crossed a bridge then went for some time at a shallow rise, usually in the shade. We collected water at one of the several rivulets which flowed across the trail. Nearby, we saw the largest toad I’ve ever seen. It was well camouflaged and if it hadn’t jumped out of our way, I probably wouldn’t have seen it at all. Later, some horseback riders came past. I’m not familiar with horse-hiker etiquette but their bigger than I am so I stepped to the side. The lead rider told me to say something to the horse. I found this curious. Maybe it was to let the horse know I was a friendly human and not a predator. Shortly thereafter, we saw the horseriders coming back. I’m not sure what their destination was since they couldn’t have gotten very far and there was nothing notable a short distance ahead.

Can you see the toad? (or frog? I’m not sure how to tell which)

Eventually the trail split and we took the less maintained fork steeply up. While easy to follow, I think a less experienced version of me would have found it incredibly exciting to hike a trail which felt so rarely traveled. We conversed to keep our minds off the climb but the elevation gain was well within the range of a typical day hike in Western Washington. First the sky began to appear through the trees. Then you could see where the terrain was going to start leveling off. Then, quite suddenly, we were at Lower Klonaqua Lake, and it was still a reasonable hour for lunch.

The lake was quite pretty. You should see it for yourself. We inflated our boats. I used Anda’s hiking boots to keep mine close to shore. One hiking boot in the boat, the other on land, and the long laces tied to keep them together. My boat is less than two pounds so it wasn’t going to pull her shore-bound hiking boot in.

Hiking boot anchor.

I’d only taken my packraft out once and this was Anda’s boat’s maiden voyage so we spent some time getting used to paddling around. I ate lunch in mine. It tracks very poorly and will enter a slow spin if not constantly attended. While annoying if you’re trying to make headway, it was a convenient way to enjoy the views.

Over lunch in the packraft, I scouted a little island (not really big enough for camping) and then spotted the outlet stream from Upper Klonaqua Lake. Back on shore preparing to cross, I was a little worried that the outlet stream seemed to be the final stage of a very long, high water course coming off the distant granite ridge. Upper Klonaqua hadn’t seemed that far away or that high when I’d looked at it on a map. Anda pointed out that I was looking at the mountains on the far side of Upper Klonaqua and that our destination was just on the other side of a low rise of trees, so small I hadn’t realized that it could be hiding a lake.

The outlet stream from Upper Klonaqua Lake. We took out to the left of it on the rock above the middle of my paddle blade.

We paddled across Lower Klonaqua Lake. This was my first experience making part of a journey in a boat that I’d packed in. No longer would bodies of water (at least flat ones) be a barrier to my travels! It was a glorious experience, never mind that my sloppy paddling technique keep getting drips in the boat.

There were a few possible take out points but none of them ideal. I picked a rock where I could throw my pack out of the boat to give me some room to get myself out. It was too steep to effectively beach the raft and a little deep, even if I’d wanted to get my feet wet (isn’t the point of a boat to not get wet?). The process lacked grace but I stayed dry and despite its best attempts, my boat didn’t manage to float away. I had to pull my stuff uphill about ten feet to give Anda room to undergo the same clumsy process. It didn’t help that the bank was steep and crowded, but it did make it feel adventurous.

Anda deflating her boat. There wasn’t much room and the bank was steep.

The bushwhack to Upper Klonaqua Lake was short and steep, probably just 100 yards. There’s a trail we could have taken if we hadn’t paddle across the lake and coming across it at the top of the barrier ridge which contains Upper Klonaqua gave that same exhilarating sense of being found as when rediscovering a trail after being lost. During the bushwhack I found some flagging tape on a tree. This almost always happens when I’m off trail; there’s really just no getting away from signs of human passage.

Upper Klonaqua Lake had a feeling of petite grandeur which was a nice reward for the petite expedition we’d undertaken to reach it. It took several minutes to find a campsite. There’s some multi-trailing and we encountered a tent but no people. The banks were thin and rolling. While this limited camping, it offered the illusion of privacy and seclusion.

Here’s your one glamor shot for the trip.

We took time making dinner, trading off who got to use the stove. I sat in my camp chair and read facing out through a gap in the trees towards lake. With light still in the sky, I turned in to enjoy the comfort of my tent and coziness of my sleeping bag. Most of my trips focus on light, fast, travel. I usually wake to predawn birdsong and string up a tarp in fading light. I wasn’t completely sure what to do with myself without the prime goal of forward motion undergirding every action.

Day 2 (Sunday)

It was another easy morning. There had been enough adventure the previous day so we hiked back instead of rafting. This took us by Bob Lake and connected back to the trail down to French Creek a trail split I hadn’t noticed on the way up. I guess the trail is a little rugged. Maybe that’ll help keep it less impacted. This part isn’t on CalTopo so I didn’t even know it existed.

Bob Lake. The trail comes and goes along the south bank.

We made good time but Anda’s feet were hurting so we stopped at the confluence of Icicle and French Creek so she could patch things up for the last mile. There was a friendly couple camped there testing out their gear for the upcoming season and it was fun to regale them with the story of our adventure. Feet having been put back together, we marched back to the trailhead in time to hit up the 59’er Diner on the way home.

What I learned from this trip is how many low traffic gems are hidden away in the Cascades if you’re up to take a less beaten path and aren’t trying to make a high mileage weekend.

A PCT Reunion in Wonderland (July 12-14)

Prologue

Due to a miscommunication, I thought this trip had been canceled. Determined to check the Wonderland Trail (circumnavigation of Mt Rainier) off my bucket list, I made it happen over July 4th weekend. Despite living in Washington for most of the last decade, I’d only been to Mt Rainier once. While it was clear that Mt Rainier, and really the entire area, is quite beautiful, the trip felt like something of a forced march with a lot of anxiety about mileage and elevation, under frequently ambiguous atmospheric conditions, and despite frequent human interaction, lonely. While there were some real highs, my mood was generally pretty low. Bonus: light rain and ambient moisture killed my phone so no pics.

When I got home Sunday night on July 7th and discovered I’d been included in a group chat planning to squeeze a Wonderland trip into 3 days the next weekend, I was initially put off. Hadn’t the trip been canceled? 3 days isn’t that long to hike 93 miles with 22,000 ft of climbing, especially once you account for transport each way. Didn’t I have something better to do than re-hike a trail which had left me feeling so neutral?

On the flip side, the trip was being arranged by my friend Ella (“Red”) whose well grounded sense of the absurd and quick laugh has turned several bad situations into quality type-2 fun. Also on the guest list was Clare (“Star”) who I’d known as something of a power-hiker but hadn’t seen since the PCT and was curious to see how her collegiate idealism had transferred to the real world. Our last member would be Ross (“Big Hunk”) who I hadn’t met but had heard about several times in glowing terms. Was I in? Yeah… probably. If nothing else, misery loves company.

Pre-trip (Thursday)

After a great deal of indecision, we decided that Clare would drive down and get day-before permits for an itinerary of White River (night before the trip), Pyramid Creek Camp, and Ipsut Creek Camp. This would make for low 30 mile days with 7,000 ft or more. Due to unavailability of sites at Pyramid creek Clare accepted the suggestion of a “ginger ranger” to shift our first night’s permit an extra several miles and 1,500 ft to Devil’s Dream. Based on her description of the interaction, our “trail mania” affected conversations would cast The Ginger Ranger as everything from an object of ire to romantic desire.

While Clare was down by Mt Rainier getting a our permit, Ross and Ella rendezvoused in Seattle after work then came to pick me up. There was a delay when Ross’s van broke down and they had to wait 20 minutes before starting it, something about air in the priming pump. I was waiting out front when they showed up, Ella jogging in front of a tall, white sprinter van which Ross parked but didn’t turn off. I had a moment of disbelief that they wanted to road trip in a vehicle of questionable reliability when my station wagon, which has never suffered a mechanical failure, was available. Ella pointed out that Ross had just finished a 6,000 mile road trip so the van was road worthy aside from the primer pump. I decided that this was going to be one of those trips where the adventure comes from shared experience of happenstance not of planned participation in prescribed activities. During the stop in Enumclaw to get food for the hike, I stayed in the van since we had to leave it running.

By the time we pulled in to the White River campground, it was dark and we weren’t sure where to meet Clare. We knew our campsite was for thru hikers but weren’t sure where, among the many loops of campsites, that was. We first drove through the parking lot for hikers and climbers and I spotted a small blue LED light on in the back of a truck with a tall cap over the bed. It wasn’t until after driving through several of the loops that we deduced that it might have been her in the truck. We pulled up behind it and Ross called softly, “Clare?”. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have heard and so just yelled, “Clare!” which probably made Ella and Ross cringe. Fortunately, it turned out to be her and Ross parked his van, named Besty, alongside.

Ross offered us dinner (an excellent chili – I couldn’t tell it was vegitarian) and while cleaning up, I saw a set of nicely wrapped ethernet cords. This lead to a reference about working IT. Then we both specified software. Then we discovered that we’d met before. The day after I finished the PCT, Ross was the second of two hikers I talked to while waiting in the lodge at Manning Park. We’d talked about plans for the future and I’d wondered how things had gone for him.

Eventually Clare went back to sleep in the truck and Ross found room to fit the other three of us on the floor of his van.

Day 1 (Friday): White River to Pyramid Creek

We were off around 5am the next day since there were well over 30 miles and 8,000 ft to hike. This was the same jumping off point and direction I’d started from a week before and so was quick to point the way out of the campground. The trail runs an easy, forested downhill before turning up Frying Pan Creek and eventually climbing a set of switch backs to Summerland, a camp near a meadow with a wonderful west-facing view of Mt Rainier. Clare and Ella set a quick pace, chatting a mile a minute until a small bridge over a waterfall. Clare stopped for a bit and we made plans to regroup at Summerland. I chased Ella up the switch backs to tell her and after relaying the new plan, she made me pass since she doesn’t like walking in front and so I felt obliged to keep the pace up.

Ella and Ross at Summerland.

From Summerland, the trail went up towards a ridge through a boulder field. There’s a stream which can be crossed with an tricky rock hop if you have trekking poles. I’d advertised this as a “dry foot” trail based on my previous week’s adventure but Ella and Clare don’t use poles. They gave me a pretty solid glare after wading through. Ross kept his feet dry, crossing with grace, dexterity, and trekking poles. I followed sans grace but kept my feet dry as well.

I didn’t get a picture of it, but there’s a footlog which is half washed away except that one end has a cable around it attached to a bolt in the rock. The sight of old bridges, now useless due to a change in the course of a steam or because they’d been swept away downstream were common on this trip.

Heading up from Summerland, before the stream crossing.

Shortly before the ridge above Summerland we encountered our first snow. Having been through the week before, I lead where the trail wasn’t immediately obvious and took a turn wider than the trail did. Fortunately, the saddle at which we cross was visible so there was no real risk of getting lost. Just before crossing the ridge and gaining a view to the south, there’s a short traverse across a relatively steep snowfield. Traction devices not required but again, I appreciated having poles.

The trickiest bit of snow.

I don’t have pictures of the view that then unfolded before us. It’s one of those special moments in hiking when you attain a ridge and can, after hours of laboring through now familiar terrain, in a moment see unique, new country. Mt Adams was visible, which it hadn’t been on my previous trip. The grass below the snow line was an intense, vibrant green. The clouds were varied above a blue horizon of distant, ragged peaks. Ross grinned broadly. The women made inarticulate exclamations of delight and made a show of falling on their knees and waving their arms. After a time, we continued.

The trail continued to traverse across snow patches. It was convenient to have come through the week before as I could point to where the footprints across had missed the trail and so keep reasonably on course. At a turn where I’d gotten lost the week before I made everyone guess where the trail went and was pleased that at no one found it obvious. We followed the majority of tracks up a steep slope to and discovered that in the intervening week, a patch of ground containing a bit of trail pointing the way had melted through.

Where’s the trail? I guess we’ll just go up until we find it.

During the ensuing snack break we somehow wound up trying to decide what 2D geometric shape each other were. This lead to a lot of discussion as to the difference between a rhombus vs a trapezoid or an isosceles vs scalene triangle. I was just glad not to be labeled a square. From there we walked the ridge down to Indian Bar. The wall of rock across the valley had a myriad little waterfalls as snowmelt found it’s way down through every crack and crevice.

Mt Adams appears again just before the descent to Indian Bar.

Lunch a Indian Bar was a pretty brief affair. Clare set a timer for 20 minutes and when it went off we were done. The scene was idyllic but we had miles to make. With backgrounds in thru-hiking and distance running, we were all aware that eating lightly but frequently and taking regular, short breaks was the best way to coax our bodies over many miles. I found a quiet pleasure that we all knew this and acted with the same set of priorities. One of my vices is eating too much to enjoy uphill hikes and so being cut off from my second set of PB&J tortillas when the alarm went off was good accountability.

First Lunch at Indian Bar

After cresting the first rise out of Indian Bar, we were again ambushed by views Mt Adams. I knew this was coming and set up to catch expressions on camera. The day was glorious.

Mt Adams puts a big smile on Ross’s face.

The ridge walk wore on and eventually descended into the trees. It would be many miles, probably not until Indian Henry’s the next day, before we would again walk through such grand views.

The group spread out with a plan to rendezvous at the next camp or major trail intersection. Ella took the opportunity to practice running downhill and was soon out front. Her arms flop and sway out to the side like a small child at play. Combined with her choice to hike in a dress, she the scene was adorable. Ross’s long, clean, strides; precise pole plants; metronomic timing; lowered head; and tight, smooth, linear motion were as opposite a form of hiking as could be imagined. Also in contrast: I typically enjoy plants while in motion past them but when Clare arrived at the next stop just a minute or two behind, there were sprigs of lupine in her hair. It was so much fun to hike my own hike in the company of others hiking theirs.

One last ridge walk before the descent into the trees will obscure the view.

On the way down, we ran across a family from Boston who I’d met the week prior at Mowich Lake. They’d given me some freeze dried meals and a few other goodies left over from the resupply they were packing up. I was carrying some of that bounty on this trip and let them know how much I appreciated it. I’d been hoping to see someone from the previous week still out on the trail and so was delighted to run into them. They also warned us that Devil’s Dream, our permitted site for the night, was a mosquito-ridden hell hole.

Second lunch at Nickel Creek. Clare sporting lupine.

After Nickel creek, we finish off the descent and start pounding out the miles westbound towards Reflection Lakes. The trail goes through a river valley  which isn’t so different from every other forested river trail you’ve walked. We cross a side stream on a series of logs, each just long enough to reach an uneroded island mid-stream before the next one picks up. Eventually a long, shallow climb offers glimpses of a road in the steep valley wall across the river. We cross the small washout which a sign 5 miles earlier had warned about. I’d only brought 1L water capacity and was beginning to run low. while waiting for Clare to transfer water between bottles, I went ahead to find the next source and start filling water explaining that that way they wouldn’t have to wait for me. Actually, I was pretty sure that the next water source was a waterfall and wanted to have a good look at everyone’s face when they first saw it. I was rewarded with a quality set of smiles and we took our time to collecting water anyways.

This waterfall is a nice surprise on the long hill to Reflection Lakes.

You know you’re getting close to Lake Louise, the precursor to the the Reflection Lakes, when you have to cross a paved road several times. It’s strange to be on a long hike having started from a drive-in campground and again be close to a road.

By this time, our conversation had descended into true insanity. The primary topic of discussion was the logistics of an eternal hike around, and sometimes over, Mt Rainier. This slow eviction of reality from regular discussion is what Ella appears to mean by the phrase, “trail mania”.

Why drive when you can walk?

After Reflection Lakes, the trail descended past a waterfall (Ross made a quick side-trip to see it), to Paradise Campground, which was closed, past some smaller waterfalls (where Ross caught back up), along a small pipeline, and across a wide but mostly dry riverbed. We had a quick powow about where to eat dinner and what we wanted to do about our permitted campsite being infested with mosquitoes. It was an awkward scene with the other three sitting on rocks in a semi-circle while I stood and tried to lay out some alternatives. Mostly I wanted us all on the same page but had thought it would be fun to eat at the Paradise Lodge if there were time. This ended with the decision to just keep walking for now. We ate dinner at a picnic table in Longmire.

With full bellies and rested feet, we took on the last hill of the day. Night was falling as we passed Pyramid Creek. We found a small, empty campsite and squeezed in after agreeing to move if challenged since we were technically off permit. In the spirit of making a best attempt to follow the rules, we tried to hang our food on the bear pole. It was much taller than other bear poles I’d seen and the pole used to reach up and hook a food bag at the top was too short for some and too ungainly for the rest of us so we slept with our food. As usual, there were no problems

Day 2 (Saturday): Pyramid Creek to Mowich Lake

We woke up early on Saturday, something like 4am. I’m pretty sure it was Clare’s idea but I can’t remember why. We were passing Devil’s Dream (as reported, the mosquito cloud was dense) as it got light. This was the first place we saw the oil drum looking containers labeled “human excrement” in the clearing nearest camp. I guess teams the latrine cleaning team, or maybe the local patrol ranger, swaps them out from time to time, then a chopper carries out the full ones. It’s one of those subtle cues as to how much travel this area gets and the amount of effort that goes into maintaining it.

As things flattened out, I saw a small blackbear and pointed it out to Clare who was just ahead of me. Clare saw and so could corroborate my story that it ran off just before Ella came around the bend. I think Ella still hasn’t seen one despite having over 2,000 miles of hiking under her feet.

Indian Henry’s was gorgeous. It’s a little patrol cabin in a meadow ringed by trees with Mt Rainier rising up behind it. A trickle of a stream runs through the meadow. Since I’d seen it on my last trip and I focused on capturing others’ expressions. Only later did I remember that I’d lost all the previous trip’s pictures.

Ella agape at Indian Henry’s. Ross in the background in typical hard charging style.

The valley after Indian Henry’s is a deep gorge with no convenient way across. Except, that is, for the flexible, twisting, one-at-a-time suspension bridge provided for your convenience. For some reason everyone had stopped before the bridge and no one immediately started across when I caught up.

The trick is to put walk with your feet in line as though you were on a balance beam. This prevents the side-to-side weight shifts which happen during normal walking from causing the bridge to swing. Of course I let everyone figure that out for themselves.

I interpret Ross’s expression to mean, “What trick is this you’re playing on us?”

After ye old set of forested switchbacks, Ross and I broke out into the open below Emerald Ridge. Clare had been leading up the hill but stepped aside for a moment and Ella had stayed back for a moment to check on her. There’s a fine line to walk when inquiring about someone. We’re all experienced hikers and have our own preferences for working through on-trail ailments and sometimes it’s best to make it clear that they’re not holding you back so they can focus on themselves.

Clouds were blowing across Emerald ridge and so while we couldn’t see down into the valley on either side, we usually we had a good view of the mountain clouds forming halos over the peaks.

Ross hiking fearlessly towards an obscured fate.

By the time Ross and I had settled in for a snack, Ella caught up and reported that Clare would probably be OK but need to catch up at her own pace. We spent a few minutes identifying evac routes in case they’d be needed, then ate and hung out. The view even cleared for a bit. Ross noticed how nice it was to recline with the feet above the head. Quality dirt napping ensued.

Dirt napping. For some reason they remind me of torpedoes ready to launch.

Ah! There’s the far side of Emerald Ridge.

Clare caught up with us, feeling well and in good spirits. After a few minutes to rest and snack, she and Ella tore off down the tightly switchbacking trail. After regrouping at the bottom, we split up again on the climb up to St Andrews lake. Despite the early start we were now behind pace and while no one was worried, we figured that longer distances between regroups might help us move faster.

My pack on this trip might be described as a running-inspired hiking backpack. We were all carrying a pretty minimal set of gear but the expression of heavily laden, oft-resting, traditional backpackers we passed while still in fine form, particularly when late in a climb, were priceless. Some thought we were day hikers. Others asked if we were doing an out-and-back. The answer that we were going around the mountain in three days was universally unexpected. Since our group didn’t always hike together, it was sometimes interesting to compare differences in reactions. My favorite comment of the trip was, “We’re here to teach you kids how not to backpack like that” which Ella overheard between a parent and several of their kids. The same people had merely exchanged smalltalk about fishing with me. We stopped for lunch at St Andrews lake which had been iced over the week before and was largely shrouded in mist which cleared slowly. Fortunately the skinny dipping was over before that particular family appeared and set themselves up on a little peninsula, backs to us.

The mist continued clearing on the down-up to Golden Lakes and I was able to see the area which had been socked in on my previous trip. I mostly remember an old burn now well into recovery with knee to waist high green shrubs covered in small leaves. The silver-grey snags provided no shade. You could look back and see the previous ridge. There was long thin gap in the trees indicating forest road. One of the great joys of higher mileage trips is looking back in wonder that you body has carried you such a great distance.

I must have been moving pretty quickly because I had to wait a few minutes for people to catch up at the Golden Lakes patrol cabin. It was quite pleasant to have a log to sit on. I found my entry in the trail register from the week before and looked ahead on the elevation profile. The trail is so well marked that I’d just been using the elevation profile to track progress. It’s pretty easy to tell uphill from downhill so you just count the number of big climbs or descents since the last camp you passed.

Golden Lakes Patrol Cabin. This time it wasn’t socked in so I actually got to see the lakes.

Given that the women tended to be faster on the downhills and the men faster on the uphills, we decided to regroup at the top of the next down-up: Mowich Lake. Ella took off at a jog but Clare wound up ambling along with Ross and me, discussing a recent hot political topic. Time passed quickly and we were suddenly at the South Mowich river. It’s so nice to have people to talk to when you want to talk. It’s strange that only in a Star Trek episode have I heard conversation explicitly referenced type of pleasure. I almost hadn’t taken a drink since Golden Lakes about 7 miles before and neither had Clare or Ross given how much we suddenly all drank now that a flow of water reminded us to.

The climb to Mowich Lake was the last of the day and I was secretly hoping to catch Ella, so I took it as fast as I could. I justified this as my last training run for the White River 50 miler I would be running in two weeks. When I arrived, drenched in sweat, at the picnic table where she’d set up, already ensconced in a puffy and deep in her bag of snacks, and confessed my ambition, a wicked little smile spread across her face. She claimed to just have been testing the theory that downhill is less important in a race than uphill because you spend less time on it. Ross showed up moments later, out of breath and threw his poles down at the base of the picnic table with mock rage and joined in the griping about the climb. Apparently I’m not the only one whose competitive streak comes out some times.

There were now two problems. First was that I was quite wet and the sun was about to go down and it was cloudy with a little humidity. One option was to go to bed wet and let my body heat dry things out. It was clear though that I’d be pretty cold before I got warm under the quilt and so I stripped off my wet hiking shirt, did what I could to air out for a bit and put on my puffy whose synthetic shell made my skin feel horribly sticky. I stayed warm though and that’s what mattered.

The second problem was where to camp. No one particularly felt like continuing to our permitted camp at Ipsut Creek, about five miles dark miles down a steep and tricky hill. We’d been considering just setting up around our picnic table despite it not being a designated campsite (the surface was a closed forest road so at least we weren’t impacting the area) when another hiker came over and struck up a conversation. It turns out they had a permit but all the spots had been taken so instead of evicting someone off-permit, the ranger had just told them to find a picnic table and set up near it. We felt that this was the justification we were looking for. The women set up their bivvies on the picnic table and Ross and I pitched our tarps between it and a split rail fence. Ella yogi’d a bag of chips, M&Ms, and hot chocolate from the people at the next campsite and after profuse thank yous and tucked in then turned in.

Day 3 (Sunday): Mowich Lake to White River

I’d delegated the duty of setting an alarm and so should have expected a human voice to wake me up but my still sleeping brain processed Ella’s soft wake-up calls with the same panic as a child being woken up by a parent because they’re late for school. The upside was that this didn’t leave time to care that my hiking shirt was still soggy from last night. Everyone left camp on their own schedule and I started at a rapid clip to warm up but ran into Clare at a trail intersection where she was checking which direction to take and we hiked together for a bit.

After Mowich Lake, the trail is almost flat for a short while then takes a steep drop down towards Ipsut Creek. The footing can be loose and a little rocky in places and it was easiest to take at a half jog, throwing my trekking poles forward and catching myself on when jumping down over rocks and roots. Things flattened a little towards the valley bottom then turned into an easy uphill along the outlet of the Carbon Glacier.

I stopped at a sign for the Northern Loop Trail since the week before, I’d encountered some Wonderland hikers here trying to determine which way to go. The correct answer is to detour across the river and follow the trail on the north bank up to Carbon Glacier where you rejoin the Wonderland proper. It’d be an easy turn to miss so I wanted to make sure no one did that. I sat down just past the sign with the intention of quizzing everyone as they came in on which way to go. I was foiled by most of them doing the obvious thing: going back a few paces to look at the sign. As with other river beds, it’s fun to cross here because the after the log bridge, you have to find you way through the rocks and see the remnants of past seasons’ bridges. A ranger told me that in many places, they just let the footlogs wash out and come back each season to put them in again.

Shortly after crossing the river, I was struck with a dire need to poop. I knew there was a toilet a short ways up the trail near a suspension bridge but couldn’t remember exactly how far it was. I tried to hold it but eventually peeled off over mossy rocks away from the trail and relieved myself, having to dig a cat hole afterwards. After returning to the trail, I found the suspension bridge merely 100 yards or so up trail. It turns out I might not have made it after all as Clare, who’d been in similar predicament, but apparently with a stronger sphincter, said she’d had to hike about a quarter mile across the bridge and down the next trail to find the toilet.

I haven’t spent much time around glaciers but the Carbon Glacier struck me as strange in that it was covered in dirt and rock. I would have assumed that the darker colors warmed up more and caused it to melt faster but in this case maybe it’s a deep enough layer to be slightly insulating.

The Carbon Glacier with Mt Rainier in the background.

After a long climb, the grade began to reduce. The trail runs along a stream which seems, from the small, gentle cut through which it courses, like it would lead to a saddle. Instead it opens into small meadows with a view of Mt Rainier. This had been fogged over when I passed through the week before and was a delightful surprise.

After cresting the rise and passing the not-Mystic-Lake lake (there’s a sign indicating such), the trail meanders down to Mystic Lake proper through lush green fields. I decided to wash up and let my clothes dry out properly. A clean body and dry clothes (even if stiff with dried sweat) can be a real treat after damp conditions. The quick dunk turned into a swim across the lake. As I swam, Mt Rainier slowly came out from behind a ridge. This was a nice reward for making it for making it the length of the lake. Everyone had arrived and gotten in by the time I made it back. Ella was still outbound on her swim and we tried to play some game where we pushed off each other’s feet but we didn’t get the timing quite right. Unfortunately, there were ants and mosquitoes so the others didn’t hang around for long. I had full coverage clothes and a head net and was far too relaxed from the swim to want to rush, so I promised to catch up after finishing lunch.

Probably the worst picture ever taken of Mystic Lake.

The swim’s afterglow carried me down to the base of our last climb of the trip clean, dry, and happy. Sweat broke on the first few switchback and eventually I came back to the reality of hiking. I’d told the others about a turn in the trail where you can look back and see Mt Rainier and had expected them to use it as a place to regroup. Instead, I caught up to them sitting on the side of the trail maybe a half mile before the turn, snacking and telling stories. When Clare’s regular snack break timer had gone off, no one had taken her offer to keep going. The trip is almost over, we’re going to make it with plenty of time, and everyone wanted to enjoy it to the last.

Eventually, we did get to the viewpoint where you could look back at Mt Rainier.

Before the last traverse, which would bring us to Sunrise, I was subjected Ella and Clare’s interest in taking “Hikertrash Vogue” pictures (explanation). They’d made Ross pose on the shore of St Andrew’s Lake, and Ella had hers taken coming out of the water at Mystic Lake. I was seated on a rock and told to look over my shoulder and make a “come hither” look… I guess a career in modelling isn’t for me. I do like that they worked in the trekking poles and took the picture in my standard hiking uniform, though that seems to be the point.

Our final traverse was short and the views were nice but not sweeping. We passed a pair of junior rangers about knee high being herded along by a volunteer ranger who was passing out advice and answering questions for day hikers. Ella and Clare seemed about to explode from the cuteness.

What’s incredible is that despite spending three days together, the conversation never really stopped. There were some lulls but Clare and Ella are such chatterboxes that Ross and I always had the option of joining in or keeping to ourselves whenever we wanted. It’s actually quite convenient.

The last set of switchbacks after Sunrise took us down to White River. I was in the lead and set a brisk pace. The last miles of any hike are the longest and it’s best to just power through. You have to walk every step, even if you know the parking lot is just down there. Things seem much closer than they really are so time drags out. Best to just get it done.

When we finally finished, we were quite proud of ourselves. Our closing refrain, based on a picture of us taken in front of the trashcans at Longmire was, “Trash Can”, referring to hikertrash (us) being able to do the thing we set out to do. Ross had camp chairs and set them out. Then he came out with a six-pack of Rainiers in honor of the mountain we’d just walked around. Highs and lows were shared, then bonus highs and lows, then just a lot of highs. The laughter was resplendent. We’d walked around Mt Rainier in under three days and had daylight to spare. No one wanted to go home. As Phillipe Patek adverts have noted, time is the greatest luxury. When spent hiking through beautiful places with wonderful people, I’m inclined to agree.

 

All my photos

Ross’s photos

AK Epilogue

The flight on Wright Air from Bettles back to Fairbanks was the only time on the trip when I saw rain.

Some group members had a room where we’d stayed before heading out so we regrouped there, then went to lunch. Everyone had an entire pizza to themselves and there weren’t many leftovers.

Back at the hotel, we got back in touch with the world. E-mail, text messages, and social media were checked. The inbound group recognized me as the PB&J guy from Andrew’s Instagram. One by one, people would say goodbye and head for the airport.

I was on the same flight as Lance so we went to the airport together at the terminal and said farewell as we walked onto the plane.

It’s incredible to reflect on the trip. In most groups, there’s a slowest person. Ours didn’t have one. Some were faster up or down talus. Others were faster in tussocks. Everyone hiked all day and had a good attitude. Everyone had something interesting to talk about. The group were all high performers athletically (ex: a former army ranger, a triathalon coach, several ultra-marathoners) and in professional life (ex: doctor, retired-early wall street guy, financial advisor, business exec), but no one’s personality got in the way.

On top of that, no one got seriously injured. There weren’t any good evac plans short of walking out. Despite this, Andrew had taken us on a trip with relatively little intel and the need to adapt had been real. There weren’t many snow reports and no beta from anyone else this year. We’d skipped the highest pass of the trip, a mountain called Ariel, because it was was too risky. The Awlinyak had been running high when we crossed it. There were many unknowns which could have seriously risked the trip. Everyone had pushed themselves pretty hard and yet no one had broken. Despite all the risks, the trip had been offered and the participants trusted to make it work.

Andrew, our primary guide, could probably write a book on leadership or management. The trip was logistically complex (ex: he’d had to set up an LLC in Alaska to operate there). The team’s physical and emotional needs had to be balanced against with the demands of the route and schedule. People needed to be pushed to take risks so they would learn, frequently by failure, but correction couldn’t come across as diminishing. His concise style was sufficiently informative and trusted us to do the right thing. All of this from a guy who clearly does better after having his morning coffee. Andrew’s site & blog.

Justin, our second guide, was a fantastic balance to Andrew’s firm, clean, business like manner. Justin was goofy and sociable but didn’t make a scene. He was competent and self deprecating. His experience in the mountains came across in casual, independent opinions which you couldn’t help but trust. He felt like just another group member, but one who Andrew depended on to keep us out of trouble.

I wish them and all of our group the best on their future adventures.

AK Day 7

I was proud of dead man anchor (I haven’t had to make them very often) I used last night to hold up my tent. The ground had been shallow and there hadn’t been many rocks around but I found one large one and put it on a fallen branch to which I tied off the only guy-line for which I couldn’t place a tent stake.

I had only taken two liters of water for dry camp and was low when we started hiking so I was glad to hit a small ditch with running water soon after starting.

It was only two miles to Arrigetch Creek but the going was hard. We used GPS, which was a rarity, and were counting tenths of a mile to stay motivated.

Arrigetch Creek was running strong and it took several minutes to find a suitable crossing. Fortunately there was one nearby since the creek didn’t appear to widen downstream and it would have been miles upstream before we would have passed above the feeder streams to cross at a point with reduced flow.

After crossing we ate breakfast in the woods. It was perhaps the most low key stop we’d had for the entire trip. While we always rested when necessary, most of our meals and rest stops had an underlying tension from the knowledge that we needed to get somewhere before camping. We weren’t at circle lake yet but we were almost there and there was no need to get there early.

A little over two more miles brought us to Circle Lake where a float plane would pick us up. The group was elated. I lost and under-over bet with John on when it would show up.

There were only 5 seats so I elected to be in the second group. The bugs were worse in Bettles and now that we’d made the rendezvous with the float plane, there was no rush.

Video of the float plane taking off. The float plane (a “Beaver”) didn’t fly very high and the view made a great way to tie off a hard week of hiking.

On the flight to Bettles, we spotted a forest fire starting. The pilot circled and called it in.

In Bettles, we got a shower and bought up most of the snack, healthy and otherwise, before dinner. Alan and Brian, the guides from the other trip were there and we spent the evening talking about our trips, hiking, adventures and the like.

Perhaps because the we were no longer in our Permethrin impregnated clothes, the mosquitoes were by far the worst of the entire trip. We camped by the river so the breeze would help clear the out but there was no shade during the night and it was difficult to fall asleep until the temperature dropped.