This was a quick trip done on Friday-Saturday to avoid incoming rain. Rachel Lake is a very popular destination, about four miles one way. It’s a gentle walk along the outlet stream until the head of the valley then climbs quickly to the lake. High ROI the entire way.
Anda picked me up after work without ceremony. Our goal was to get to Rachel Lake before sunset and between the drive and the hike there was no daylight to waste. Late starts have forced us to shorten our trips in the past.
This was my first time to Rachel Lake and while I knew it was popular, it seemed like every turnout on the dirt road to the trailhead was occupied with a car. There was only one parking spot in the lot. Day hikers were milling around everywhere.
The first thing I noticed on the Rachel Lake Trail was how closely it follows the outlet stream from Rachel Lake. This means that you’re almost immediately rewarded with a picturesque, rushing water to reward you willingness to step onto a dirt path. No delayed gratification here.
While the trail is gentle at first, it climbs and eventually begins to switchback. This remains close to the stream.
Shortly after starting the climb, a hiker coming down hill stopped to mention that the trail would get hard to follow. There was a little ambiguity in what he was saying but it sounded like the problem was that the stream overran the trail and it was hard to pick which branch of stream to follow.
The trail seemed easy enough to follow, despite several stream crossing, diverging social trails, and a small waterfall.
There’d been a few places where you could make a wrong turn, but there were always clues. Usually the clues were obvious like branches across the social trail telling you not to go there. Eventually, the stream wound up flooding down the trail. The adventure came when we tried to divert onto a social trail to stay dry. We returned to the main trail at a point where several branches of the stream converged and it might not have been clear which one was the trail, if any where the trail at all. Ultimately, the scuff marks on the edge where hikers had tried to keep their feet dry gave a pretty clear indication of where to go.
Eventually the trail turned off the waterway. After nice viewpoint to look back down the valley, we started hitting patches of snow. I’d been expecting snow on the lake, but not on the edges and this was a little concerning. By the time we got to the lake, the trail was pretty well buried, only peaking out here and there to provide hints that the footprints we were following were not those of someone lost. When we came to the lake, however, the low ridge retaining the lake seemed largely dry of snow and devoid of people – our plan to avoid the crowds by coming in early season had worked.
It turns out that there were plenty of people, they were just occupying the campsites. We found them as soon as we started looking for a place to set up. Despite most campsites being occupied, people were polite. We actually had to lower our voices because everyone else was making so little noise. Such good manners in the outdoors community! The one exception to the general peace was a fellow whose dog would bark when people got too close. His dog looked like a slightly larger version of Anda’s dog (which she hadn’t brought) and so this potential disturber of the peace became a friend over a serendipitous and socially-distant supper conversation.
Anda sleeps late by my standards so I had a chance to explore a little and eat breakfast before finding the door of her tent open. The sun was up, though behind clouds. Since Rachel Lake sits above a valley and is retained by such a thin berm, there are nice views away from the lake as well.
Rachel Lake is longer than it first appears and while the outlet stream is small, it was a little tricky to cross without getting wet since snow covered the far bank and crossing required standing on a wet, narrow log. Rain, which had been corralled to the west by the mountains, finally came. It was haltingly at first but made the return trip a little wet.
Things had dried out by the time we were back to the car. A new set of day hikers and overnighters swarmed past us, making me glad we’d visited outside peak times. We were on the road home by noon, an oddly early time to be done with an adventure, but sometimes its good to enjoy the little things in life.
I’m not sure what’s so attractive about the Issy Alps 100 mi. The route is basically every hill or mountain west of Mailbox Peak until the Seattle metro area. Instead of enjoying each peak one at a time while walking at a leisurely pace with your friends on a Saturday morning, you enjoy them all at once with sore legs and sleep deprivation, sometimes in the dark and mostly alone. However, with all the races canceled due to COVID-19, and a feeling of unfinished business after my run of the Issy Alps 100 km, I set out to get my first hundred miler.
Prepping for the run was an exercise in compromises. Was I sufficiently recovered from the GVRAT? Maybe, maybe not, but running on the summer solstice to maximize daylight seemed like a good idea. How to fit 36hrs of food into my pack for an unsupported run? How about Chocolate Chip Clif Bars and Chewy Bars which were supposed to come on a thru-hike with me this summer. They tend not to go down well in large quantities so the mix was leavened with GUs left over from the 100km run. Knowing that my stomach tends go downhill over a race, especially if a course climbs, I decided to eat only Clif Bars for the first 50k to get them out of the way and then try to survive on GUs and Chewy Bars for the rest. In an effort to add a little variety, I mashed some yams and put them in a ziplocks but didn’t think to pack a spoon. There wasn’t room for both ziplocks so I only brought one. Would it rain? Hopefully not much since didn’t want to carry a raincoat bungie’d to outside of my pack. How cold would it be? hopefully not too cold because I definitely didn’t have space for a full fleece. The weather seemed like it’d just cooperate (<0.1″ rain predicted, 48F at night) but things can still be volatile at this time of year. I’d seen a post on social media saying that if you weren’t wearing shorts and flip-flops, it wasn’t June. I did decide to wear shorts without tights but not the flip-flops. Also, I don’t think that poster was from the Pacific Northwest.
Saturday Morning – Mailbox to Little Si – First 50k
Alarm at 3:30am. Driving to High Point Trailhead by 4:00am. By 4:30am I was waiting for the ride I’d scheduled the night before (I decided this cost was the price of my race entry fee). In a moment of inspiration, I scratched out a plea not to tow my car despite parking in front of clear and regularly spaced “No Overnight Parking” signs. My first transgression of the run. The ride shows up around 4:40am. On the way to the lower Mailbox parking area, the driver asks how I’m getting back to my car and I explain that I’ll be walking back. He doesn’t really seem to know how to respond. Around 5:05am I’m dropped off. Some guys are gearing up for morning hike and one of them acquiesces to snap a starting line photo.
Have run the 100km version before, there were some optimizations I wanted to make for time. The first was not taking Mailbox slow. I did have to slow a little on the uphill (1:36 at the top – maybe 4min ahead of my 100km pace) but the real bet came on the descent when I stashed my trekking poles and took the large, pounding drops to quickly navigate the broken, eroding, root-laced Old Mailbox Trail. Time was just under 2:30 back at the gate which is half an hour faster than I’ve ever done a roundtrip on Mailbox. I wasn’t hurting yet so this felt like a huge win. Given that I would later not run most runnable sections of the course, I should have probably taken a more conservative approach to start.
I settled into an alternating walk and run on the Granite Creek Connector trail and was shortly passed by two women I’d seen pushing hard up the Old Mailbox Trail when I had been descending past the intersection with the new trail. They were running and chatting. I was doing neither. Gotta run your own race.
The descent to the Granite Creek Trailhead was dry enough that I didn’t really have to worry about slipping, a nice change from when I ran the 100km. Again, no slowing-but-preserving pole use on the downhill. At the parking lot, I texted Paul an ETA of 9:30 – 10:30 at the base of Teneriffe, crossed the bridge, and ducked down the connector trail.
The Snoqualmie River had been running high and so I’d been concerned that the connector trail might be flooded or mucky. Neither was true beyond it’s normal state. In one place where the trail collapsed near a small water crossing some time last fall or summer, the bypass is becoming well enough used to be visible. In all, I found myself at the CCC road in what felt like a short time. To save battery, I had configured my watch to shut the screen off so wasn’t monitoring speed along this very runnable section. One of things which makes the Issy Alps so interesting for me is that there is so much climbing that when I do get runnable sections, I don’t take advantage of them. 9:47 found me texting Paul that I was starting up Teneriffe and that if he took the new trail, we might cross on my way down.
The climb to Teneriffe Falls starts gradually and I was able to shuffle-jog much of it before the rocky sections. I didn’t feel like I was moving quickly but it I felt very athletic dancing past people on the edge of the trail if they didn’t step aside when I called, “on your left” or “passing left”. At one point I even was able to confirm that this was in fact the trail to the Falls while hiking past a women and girl consulting a map. We’d both be lost if this weren’t the correct trail. The one time I kinda cut the course was when I took advantage of some multi-trailing to bypass the main switchback at Teneriffe Falls which was packed with about 20 people. At this point, my watch rolled over to a new mile so I have pretty clear stats for the Kamizake trail. The next time my watch would beep to indicate that another mile had passed, I was on the summit block and 1:10 and 2,300ft had passed. As a trio of tall, stocky young men with a dog which they’d had to carry up some of the rocks said, “this is steep”.
The effort on the Kamikaze Trail had had caused me to start disassociating and letting my mind wander off into flights of fancy. My balance didn’t feel solid – on par with when you don’t want a second beer because the first one kicked way harder than one beer should. It’s a strange place because you can tell you’re weak and not all there but you’re not panting or in pain. The limiting reagent is some kind of ability to handle full-system load. You could push but would risk of losing your connection to the world. The first time I sat down during this run was on the top of Teneriffe while I stashed my poles, watched the cloud density fluctuate, and try to plan my next moves. I gave up on the planning and decided to just keep moving slowly and wait to recover. I did take the precaution at the first intersection of asking a couple if I was turning on the the correct trail.
The main Teneriffe trail takes you along a ridge and down and old forest road, rocky and hard-packed. It was runnable enough that as I sobered up I let myself fall into a jog, if only because I couldn’t rationalize not running. My legs weren’t in it anymore. The footing was stable but uneven and the grade was such that each step was largely just shock absorption. This section down to the Talus Loop goes on longer than you want it too. Despite expecting this effect from my 100km run, “Am I there yet?” worked it’s way into my head every time I saw a west-bound social trail splitting off the main trail. When I finally did turn up the Talus Loop, I fell into a walk despite the varying angle lending itself to run-walking. A runner passed me coming downhill and I pre-emptively stepped aside to snatch a few seconds of guilt free rest. Just being polite. The stream just before Talus Loop intersects the Mt Si trail wasn’t deep enough and didn’t have little pour-offs to completely fill my bottles so I took what I could and then drank a bunch.
I’d been forcing myself to eat a Clif Bar every hour and had noticed that soon thereafter think I was about to have stomach issues. This would make me not want to eat and require the next bar to go down only with a lot of water and small bites. So, sitting on the little log on Talus Loop, I put Tailwind into my bottles hoping that would avoid the necessity of eating, never mind that experience has shown that this isn’t true for me. I’d repackaged bulk Tailwind into popsicle bags (net savings of $0.65/oz!) and so probably looked like a drug addict pouring white powder out of a baggie. Food is a kind of performance enhancing drug, at least in the sense that it’s required for performance.
Going up Mt. Si felt pretty much like a hike. I was passing people but at about the same pace as when hiking. I was starting to lean forward and stick my butt out to give my quads a rest while pulling uphill with my hamstrings. Someone who was actually running passed me. Then coming down the trail, I heard someone say, “There he is”. It was Paul and his friend Brendan. “OK, we’re going back up”, he told Brendan, and they turned around to follow me. I’d given up on meeting Paul, having texted him at the Talus Loop that we’d probably missed each other and wished him well. Apparently they’d tried to chase me up the Kamikaze Trail but then not having caught up, took the ridge to Mt. Si to get ahead. Part of the confusion was that I’d started an hour earlier than I’d originally told him and by his math, I’d been flying. If only it were so.
Our stop and the viewpoint which marks the “top” of Mt Si (the route to Haystack isn’t part of the Issy Alps) was brief. I stashed my poles, put something in my face, and snapped the preceding picture of Paul and Brendan. Then we went down the Old Si Trail, Paul needing only short prompts from me to fill the silence. It was good to have company, particularly when the nipple came off one of my bottles and hid itself in some twigs. Brendan found it while Paul was running a search pattern. We drew water at Little Si, just after having joined the Little Si Trail. Then it was Paul’s turn to have lost something. I felt like a bad friend for continuing while he searched, but I was on the clock. He and Brendan caught me well before the top which says something about how fast I could move at this point. I mentioned feeling pretty beat and we discussed strategy, which boiled down to the odds of being able to make it under Highway 18 before nightfall. They tried to make me feel like I had a chance.
Paul and Brendan turned off back to their car where we’d joined the Little Si Trail and I continued down the parking lot, now using poles for the descent. It was a revelation that I could move downhill without hurting. My legs had moved past the initial phase of tiredness and were now sore as though I were starting a new run too soon after having finished some other great effort. It’s strange to be sore from a race you’re still running.
Per the strategy of optimizing out small breaks, I didn’t linger at the Little Si Trailhead which marked the end of the first 50k, but headed down the road, across the bridge, and up the Snoqualmie Valley Trail towards Rattlesnake Mountain. Recovery was foremost in my mind and I still had accessible food so I ate with the plan of taking my first pack-off break at the base of Rattlesnake to rearrange food for the second 50k and prep for the night. In the end, I wound up walking most of the Snoqualmie Valley Trail which is a huge indictment of my race strategy to this point, despite finishing the first 50k in 11:50 compared with 13hrs when I did it as part of the 100km route (recording note: the watch showed ~12,800ft gain). That gain was now being used up on easy terrain instead of built up.
Saturday Night – Rattlesnake to Tiger – Second 50k
When I got to the base of the Rattlesnake Mountain trail, I was greeted by 1) a swollen Rattlesnake Lake which made it very convenient to refill water and 2) several hundred feet of chainlink fences with signs saying the trail was closed due to to COVD-19 social distancing guidelines. Not that I hadn’t walked past a sign at the gate saying the trail was closed but that was a lot of fencing. It seemed like the authorities really wanted to make a point. It seemed like the end. I sat down and called Paul to see if he could give me a ride back to High Point Trailhead but he was in the middle of dinner. Then I watched a couple walk blatantly around the fence on a now beaten social path. This gave me pause. There was a cloudburst and they turned around. Then a large family came down the trail and skirted the fence. So I called Paul back to let him know I wouldn’t need the ride.
Rattlesnake Mountain is not normally a difficult trail. The problem was that I wasn’t moving quickly despite having been slow on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail and had a sit-down break at the base of the trail. Daylight was wasting and I was worried about whether the bushes and brambles would have overgrown the lightly maintained trail under Highway 18, making it difficult to navigate in the dark. Under normal conditions, I could just run and be there at about nightfall. That just wasn’t happening. I was now into my supply of GUs and was able to eat without having to brace for stomach concerns. The light was at the point where it was almost dark enough for a headlamp when I was in the trees and light enough that it still seemed like early evening in open areas. At East Peak, the wind was blowing sat on a bench to get a headlight, light-weight fleece, and eat some of the precious mashed yams. GU isn’t very filling and so while it seems to provide enough calories, I can enter a state of “stomach collapse” where my stomach turns into a knot because there’s not enough inside to keep its walls apart. There was a drizzle which I decided to ignore, hoping it wouldn’t get worse. Fog came and went, making it hard to use the headlamp.
The descent down Rattlesnake, after the rolling of the top ridge, and incorrectly taking the trail at the top when you’re supposed to take the road which parallels it, was a relief. My mind settled into a good place. I was below the fog and could see when using the headlamp, I was jogging downhill with trekking poles and felt like I was moving well again but without too much load on my legs. I turned west at the power lines and followed the road. Coming through here last time had involved constant navigation but it was easier now. Not that I didn’t take a wrong turn in the mountain bike trail network, but it was only one and I’d been able to run through all the turns and check my watch after the fact for confirmation rather than having to pull out the more detailed GPS on my phone at each bifurcation or deviation. Pushing through the overgrown trail under the powerlines in the dark was a little unnerving because it was hard to tell if you’d missed a branch of the trail. On the other hand, the path of least resistance was the correct one so perhaps the lack of distraction was a boon. To my surprise, I was simply dumped out on the edge of the Raging River, under Highway 18 with relatively little fanfare. The approach had taken much less mental energy than I’d expected.
The sound of Raging River grew suddenly in the last few yards approaching it. Having seen all the other swollen rivers on this run, that was an immediate concern. Looking across though, it didn’t really seem to be running high and without searching for an alternate line, I plunged in. It was just above knee deep and the water pushed, but not hard. I only had to avoid one pool formed behind a large rock into which most of a trekking pole disappeared before I pulled it back. Conveniently, my headlamp had shown all the way across from the beginning so I knew my line to the take-out point. The take-out point was near a large pylon supporting the highway overhead, and had the assurance of a whisp of trail leading up the bank.
The dark may have been a blessing because just as I had been herded down to and across Raging River without distraction, I was picked up on the other side and carried by a clear path of least resistance through the weeds. I only checked my GPS once where a jeep track ran perpendicular to the the powerline cut and wanted to be sure where to enter and exit it. In what felt like just moments, I was at Deep Creek without the bushwhacking through blackberries I’d been bracing for. Deep Creek initially looked to be running a little high but it wasn’t and I splashed across, drew water, and was once again pulled uphill along a clear path of least resistance.
Reaching the road on the south end of Tiger Mountain was a big emotional relief. One of the to major obstacles I’d have to navigate during the night was now passed and it had been much shorter and easier than I’d expected. The road and the Northwest Timber Trail to which it lead were very runnable. I jogged here and there to try and pick up some time but focused on walking quickly, with long strides, and pushing with my poles. The travel was easy and I soon found myself at the Tiger Mountain Road which would run 3.5 miles to the summit. This was well graded and I tried to achieve a long, hamstring-oriented stride. Less than 0.5mi from the top the desire for sleep caught up in that way where your mind and body actively try to shut down. It was about 1am. When I would force my eyes to stay open, my vision would blur. I tried to cede ground to sleep slowly, letting my eyes shut in long, regular blinks and trying to keep a regular stride. Eventually I sat down and ate a Chewy Bar. My stomach was empty and in the excitement of being close to the end of the last climb in the second 50km I wasn’t sure that I’d kept up eating. I hadn’t immediately been able to find a good place to sit and so having to push a little farther was another good way of slowing the compromise with sleep. After a short break, I continued and was greeted by red, otherworldly light which turned out to be some visual effect of the yellow-orange lights on the facility at the top of the Tiger’s main peak.
I let myself go on the descent and it felt easy. I didn’t require myself to run, trying to walk quickly and use poles to preserve my legs as the dirt bike trail which forms the first portion of the descent to High Point Trailhead rolled on its way down the hill. Where you turn off into the top of the clearcut, there was a sign that the trail was closed due to COVID-19 and crews working on a trail which might be felling trees – even on weekends. I doubted they were working at 2am. This was the beginning of the night’s second navigation obstacle.
There isn’t a trail through the clear cut but there’s a large, raised, logging road which forms a long catch line so you’re safe plunging off over fallen trees and low, dead brush in a down-and-to-the-left direction. I was a little chagrined to hit the road near its end, thinking that if I’d started the bushwhack a little sooner or steered a little too far left, I’d have overshot. For what it’s worth, I hadn’t followed the new mountain bike trail as I might have so I think the road is still a pretty generous catch line, certainly in the daylight. I turned down the road and followed it around several turns. If this had been my first time through, it would have been a little nerve wracking. The road is cross-cut with deep furrows so you run a few steps down one side, jump the little rivulet at the bottom, and try to carry your speed back up to the roadbed. This section deviates from the GPX track which is just a straight line. Based on a comment from the route creator, I think it’s an intentional design to force people to find their own way as the GPX track has a similar defect under Highway 18. The last two or three road mounds are grassy and particularly large and seem to be degrading into nothing when suddenly you can see the reflectors on a bridge. This bridge is back on the route and, even knowing what to expect, it was a most welcome sight. The shock of having to turn off the nice, safe, clear road onto the poorly maintained East Tiger Trail was much reduced this time through.
From here to High Point TH had been the scene of slowly increasing panic during my 100km effort. At that time, the sun was beginning to go down and I didn’t know how much distance was left other than that it was clearly farther than I’d expected. Things seemed to drag out forever. This time, I’d memorized the turns and despite being dark, it went reasonably quickly, though I did check my watch several times to ensure I was on track. The sky between the tree tops was lightening a little as I descended the Lingering Trail onto the frontage road, and made my way back to my car at an easy jog. It was a relief to see my car hadn’t been towed.
Sunday Morning – Tiger to Cougar and back – Final >50k
There was nothing in my car with which to resupply, so I didn’t bother opening it. Instead, I sat on a rock rearranging food and gear to for another day segment. Caffienated products rested on my left rib, non-caffienated on the right. Non-gel were in the front-right and my phone was in the front-left. Somehow this all took about 20 minutes. I’d arrived at Highpoint TH around 23:10 (elapsed time) and it was now 23:30. An hour faster than my 100km effort but I felt like I’d wasted that gain (recording note: the watch said something like 19,200 ft of vert). I dallied again near the parking lot trailhead to sit on a bench and take my lightweight fleece off. I didn’t feel weak, but speed was clearly not a concern. Sleepiness set in again as I started up the West Tiger Mountain Trail and after fighting it a while, I saw a concrete bench several tens of yards ahead and decided I would sit on it. I looked up again and it turned out to be just a pair stones. I’d hear that hallucinations were common in longer distance events. I’d been mistaking interesting tree stumps for people out of the corner of my eye for some time but something this real while I was this tired was too much. I saw a log just the right size for a pillow, set my alarm for 15 minutes, and let myself sleep. 8min later a light drizzle woke me up and I continued uphill.
My mental math wasn’t great but it seemed like it had taken 2hrs to get up to Tiger #1, even factoring out the nap and other stops. I think that’s usually 1:20 via the Cable Line Trail. I felt like I was falling behind and wanted to move so after the bypass trail, I let myself run down the Bootleg Trail as fast as I could with poles, energy cost and tired legs be damned. Ironically, this paid off as after the Bootleg Trail comes the 15 Mile Railroad Grade which is quite runnable due to it’s relatively good surface and slight downhill grade. Sparse grass is growing over the trail but only tickles your legs as you go by. My memory was that the 15 Mile Railroad Grade was supposed to intersect a trail coming up from the left and at the intersection thereafter become the Tiger Mountain Trail. Feeling good and wanting to press the advantage while I had it, I carried on past a sign on my left as the the trail became more overgrown. At knee-high, you could still run through the overgrowth. After pushing through a head-high section, I decided to check my GPS and found I was seriously off route.
Pushing my way back up the trail was a huge emotional downer. I just didn’t care to move faster than a walk. I was trying to guess how far I’d gone off-route and eventually decided it was probably 1mi outbound for a total loss of 2 miles. When I found the Tiger Mountain Trail, it was the sign I’d run past thinking it was the intersection before the Tiger Mountain Trail. Also, it went uphill and then rolled on its way west instead of being smooth and runnable. The disappointment was harsh.
Eventually I got to the One View Trail, almost made a wrong turn onto the Poo Poo Point Trail (per the map, you turn onto it when crossing it the second time, though I don’t remember doing this), and started seeing energetic people charging up the trail. I was jogging downhill by bouncing with my calves and the balls of my feet trying to use my poles, arms, and chest as shock absorbers. While my legs did twinge with each step, it wasn’t as hard on my quads as running downhill without poles, even if my hands were beginning to feel raw. The hill seemed long and winding, eventually crossing several bridges, and coming out to Front Street by the high school.
“Just 4 more climbs” I told myself on my way up Sycamore St to the East Ridge Trail on Squak Mountain. I was now going uphill by thrusting my butt way out and waddling with hamstrings and outer glutes. An observer might have thought it was a training drill. It was just survival.
I stopped at the first bridge on the East Side trail on Squak to gather water. The stream was running low and it was difficult to fill the soft bottles. They have the disadvantage of a bottle since they have a hard top which prevents the mouth from getting next to a shallow flow of water and the disadvantage of a bladder since the body collapses when submerged. I settled for half-filled bottles and tried to make up the extra by drinking. It struck me that where it had been easy to collect water, I had probably stopped for less time that I would have at an aid station. Where it was difficult, I stopped for longer. The East Side Trail was runnable but I didn’t really bother. Running on flat or even slight rolls took real effort. Fast walking, propelled by my poles, could be accomplished with relatively little effort. The speed difference just didn’t seem that much and while I had less than a marathon to go, I kept reminding myself that a even a half-marathon isn’t actually a very short distance.
The descent to WA 900 on the West Access Trail was pretty much like the descent on Tiger: jogging down while planting a pole with each step to keep the shock off my quads. Ascending Cougar was so slow that when I spotted some very fat hikers pushing hard, it wasn’t initially clear to me that I was going to overtake them despite thus far having overtaken every hiker a with a similar lead. Shortly thereafter I turned onto the Deceiver Trail and decided it was so named because it winds all over the place leaving you completely without a sense of direction or how much you’ve descended. On the Deceiver Trail, I started having to make water rationing decisions because I hadn’t filled up below Shy Bear Pass and was passed by a runner with a medium running pack who was flying. The Deceiver was clearly mocking me.
So inspired to at least appear like I wasn’t out of place in my athletic garb, I jogged after turning onto the Indian Trail which marked the start of the return back to High Point TH. At one point, I passed a woman who nodded to me and then told her child, “say hi to the … [yes there was a pause] … walker”. It was nice to external confirmation that I was moving as slowly as I thought.
Normally, I might have monitored my speed on my GPS watch. However, I had configured it to turn off the display in the hopes of getting it to last 41hrs instead of 32hrs, enough that I decided not to bring an extra battery pack. Not being tempted to check my watch had eased the pain of consciousness and reduced the weight of the future. Shortly after having turned back west up the Quarry Trail, onto the penultimate climb of the route, my watch beeped to tell me that it was at 10% battery and estimated only 3hrs left. If I switched to Ultra Mode, it promised 10hrs. I was over 3hrs out. It was a blow to have have to switch to Ultra as I had minimized every setting except GPS resolution in the hope of maintaining an accurate track. A full track was more important than an accurate one and so I made the change.
Until this point, I’d been calculating distance remaining by looking at the distance and subtracting it from 102 (2mi added for the overrun on the 15 Mile RR Grade). Now, I reached as far back over my head as I could to get the paper maps in the other sleeve of my pack. I was walking anyways and so could study them. I’d annotated these with key mileage markers and now found that they differed slightly from my watch-based calculations. From just below the top of Cougar Mountain, I’d have about 10.5 miles left and given that I was shooting for <36hrs, I could make it at 3mph with a few minutes to spare! This was huge. Since getting back on the Tiger Mountain Trail after overrunning it, I’d been trying to catch up the point where a 3mph pace would get me in on time. Oddly, feeling that I would make it was mental boost. It actually lightened my step and carried me down Cougar and back up and over Squak. I had a long stop on the way up for a difficult water draw since I’d gone dry and wound up losing some time. However, with an estimated 5.5mi remaining, I was at the top of the East Ridge trail and had 1:54 before the 36hr goal (my C goal, but any thought of A or B had long since passed). Despite wanting to finish well, I poled my way down to Sycamore St before stashing the poles and running. From here in, I wanted to finish like a runner, even if my pace was that of a walker.
The first hitch in that plan came after successfully navigating to the east of the high school and onto the path north of it. Then I was ambushed by an irrepressible urge to poop, something I hadn’t done in over a day and a half. Just 2.5mi or so, could I hold it? No, I couldn’t and so I dove off into the bushes. This was not a poop I was proud of: insufficient distance from the trail, no trowel, no toilet paper. This is the kind of thing which gives runners a bad name. Fortunately, no one passed and the results didn’t leave me messy. Just as I was about to continue, my watch beeped. Now it was at 3% battery and was going into “Low Power” mode. So much for Ultra Mode. I pulled out my phone and started recording a track there. So much for a complete record of the run.
The second hitch came in the form of my third trail closure of the trip. Clearly I was well beyond a little rule breaking at this point so I walked past the sign and about 10 feet up the hill found a beautiful path whose entrance I’d somehow missed.
The third hitch came on the climb to the Brink trail. The climb is very short. This notwithstanding, it felt like the hardest part of the event (yes, even compared to the 2300ft/mi Kamikaze trail) because my poles were stashed. Sweat burst across my skin in a way it hadn’t during the entire race but I was going to finish like a runner – no poles. There was less than 5km left, I told myself, and I was going to finish strong. I had shit in the bushes without toilet paper and disregarded four posted notices to get here. I damned well was going to finish strong. My legs didn’t didn’t get the memo. Nor did they get it when I reached the top of the Brink trail and started to make my feet step faster and faster hoping that I’d start running. My feet taking steps at the speed of a run but the distance of each step was so short that it was faster to walk. Defeated, I deployed my poles and fell back into a long stride, pushing myself forward from atop my straightened legs like a physics problem involving an inverted pendulum. Still, it was faster than “running”.
I followed the Brink Trail across the first powerline cut to the second, zig-zagged in it, and stepped onto the Swamp Trail. There had been a notice on the Issy Alps site that there was some maintenance in progress and I was mentally prepared to step past another sign and slog through a swamp if necessary. Much to my surprise, the only thing I was met with was fresh trail.
The power walking carried me onto a dirt road which I recognized as being adjacent to the High Point Parking Lot (not to be confused with the High Point Trailhead). No time to stash poles, just try to run. The asphalt road which would take me the short distance back to my car and the end of the this journey was the perfect grade of downhill. The grade broke the rust off my sore, stiff legs and I felt like a runner. It even felt like I was lifting my knees instead of shuffling (looking down to check confirmed this). I flew at what was probably a 5mph sprint and almost had to fall back into a walk when the road leveled. Then another downhill tipped me like a drop of liquid on the edge of a pitcher down into sight of my car and to the gate at the High Point, signalling the end of the run.
Sunday Afternoon – Epilogue
I almost panicked when my watch face didn’t light up the first time I pressed a button. On the second press, held a little extra long, it lit up. The elapsed time was about 35:33. I pressed again to end the route, and hoped that the Saving screen would finish before the battery ran out. A few moments later, and the watch beeped to tell me it was at 2%. It turned out that it had stopped recording a track when it went into low power mode and I’d been fortunate to think to start recording on my phone.
June 21, 2020 was Father’s day and so after some brief texts to Paul and some other friends who I’d updated after each section, I called Dad. Father’s day is supposed to be about the father, not the son so it was a little strange to talk about me and what I’d just done but I was crying and wanted to share it with him. It’s rare that you finish something you’re really proud of at a significant moment in time, and these moments when I’m truly proud of myself are fewer and farther between as I grow older. He seemed to understand. One of my great blessings in life is that my father has always understood me when I needed him to. That’s been true at deep moments like when seeking advice on which job offer to accept out of college (I’ve been there for about 10 years), buying my first real estate (the condo in which I still reside), or as the case now was, understanding that my stomach had turned into a painful knot and I needed to get off the phone and find some food which would require driving in a sleep deprived state since I hadn’t pack a post-race meal. God, I love my Dad.
That meal wound up being a lot of chicken nuggets, Coke, a soft-serve treat with M&Ms, and fries at the nearest drive-through. At the pick-up window, I explained that I’d just run 100 miles, felt it wasn’t safe for me to be operating a car, and asked if I might eat and sleep in their parking lot till I felt ready to go. The young woman at the window seemed unsure what to say initially, then explained this was a common thing for people to do. The food felt like a hedonistic delight. Just sitting without any desire or impulse to move would have as well if my butt hadn’t been so sore that I had to keep shifting to prevent pressure points from developing. Eventually, I opened the window, put my feet up on the edge which tilted my pelvis enough to releave all the pressure, and drifted off to the sounds of Irish fiddle playing from the car radio.
Like many recent adventures, this one started with a text from Ella.
I am guessing you don’t have interest in going camping this weekend. Ross and Clare are coming. You are of course extremely welcome if you do want to. Hoping to get to spectacle lake via salmon la sac
I had just finished the GVRAT the weekend before and so it’s understandable why she might have thought that I might not be able to walk, much less be interested in camping. For a reunion of the cast from last year’s Wonderland trip, however, I very much wanted to get back on my feet. Cue a storm of messages negotiating who actually is going to make it, when we’ll start, primary and backup destinations, route, etc….
Day 1 (Saturday)
On my way to the Salmon La Sac Trailhead, I realized we were probably going to be camping on snow and so would have wet wood. If we camped below the snowline, then we’d probably be at a campsite so popular it would be clean of legal tinder. This was supposed to be more of an easy weekend than a pseudo-thru-hike so I wanted a fire at camp and that would mean packing in my own firewood. Passing through Ronald, the last town before the trailhead, I saw a truck with bundles of firewood and a sign Firewood $5. I pulled over and checked my wallet. Three $1 bills and a few $20s. Payment was honor system so I left a $20 and took four bundles of wood, 3.5 of which are still in the back of my station wagon.
8am found me in the dirt parking lot trying to decide which luxury items to bring because the weren’t all going to fit into the pack which was once large enough to fit 6 days of foot, 2 days of water, and cold weather gear. Firewood definitely, but after that: insulated booties? camp chair? extra foam pad? group tarp in case it rains? Ella rolls up, we have an warm salutation and awkward negotiation to decide on covid-appropriate behavior. She recommends booties, and I strap the foam pad over the top as a lid of the bag which is now too full to close.
Some time before the 10:30am cut-off time we’d imposed for Ross (without his knowledge due to lack of trailhead cellphone service), he rolls up in Betsy, his live-in van. Betsy has grown up from the stripped down Sprinter I first met at the White River 50 miler last year. There was a gas range, hot water, electrical, drywall, soft-close drawers, and boxes of the tools he’d been using to do the renovations. We gave him a few minutes and found that there was even a backpack, camping gear, and two days of food which he packed up. Then we set out for Deep Lake because I’ve hiked past it several times and always wanted to actually camp there.
The trail rose gently through the woods towards Waptus Lake from which we’d turn north to Deep Lake. We caught up on current events and opinions. Ross and I tried to keep our feet dry by rock hopping the several places where water was crossing the trail. This was a little tricky because it’s still early in the season so many rocks and footlogs were slightly submerged or slick with spray. In contrast to our graceful demonstrations of balance, athleticism, and daring, Ella trudged through every stream, regularly soaking her shoes.
Around 1pm, we found an established campsite on the south bank of the Waptus River and decided to have a “first lunch” to be followed by a second lunch at Waptus Lake in twoish miles. The weather was better than forecast and the river was peaceful. Just like our last trip together, Ross had packed in a hurry and left some of his food behind, so I lent him a tortilla. Despite almost constant chatter while hiking and eating, we fell into a pensive silence for several minutes after lunch, enjoying full stomachs and calming surroundings.
The snow covering the trail had gone from patchy to a full, dirty, groundcover. There were tracks but we assumed they were destined for camping at Waptus Lake which might be on the south side whereas our objective was Deep Lake at the head of a valley which ran north from Waptus Lake. The fastest way there, according to our GPS apps was the Spinola Creek trail which was untracked. After a brief consultation, we took the road not traveled.
It turns out that the Spinola Creek Trail was untracked because it takes you to a bridge which has been washed out for so long that where we had turned off the main track, there’s a well worn, but clear, trail sign saying so. We wandered around in the snow for a bit until we hit the Waptus River and started looking for a ford. Eventually we found a former forest road which had a trail! That trail lead us first to a potential ford which we assessed as looking much shallower than it really was (a common trap). Continuing, we found a beautiful pair of solid, concrete footings, directly across from one another as though they had once held up a bridge just where the river narrowed and turned into rapids.
So we turned back and found a much more direct route back to the turnoff, along what seemed to be an abandoned forest road. It was a great case study in how, even though we’d followed the GPS for a bit on the way out, we’d completely missed the easiest way to go. After rejoining the tracks to Waptus Lake, we spotted another group through the trees. They were following their GPS and we were following their tracks but somehow we all made it to an easy ford of the Waptus River. People were dallying on the bank so I plunged ahead finally getting my feet wet (they were already wet from the snow). It was a little above knee deep and it’d have been a little more comfortable if I’d use good stream crossing tactics (cut upstream so you can walk downstream without fighting the current where it’s deepest). Ross took his socks off and you could see the cold shock on his face when he stepped in. I wrung my socks out and reshod myself while Ross put his dry socks followed by wet shoes. Ella had walked across and dubbed herself “Ice Queen”, deigning any foot care. In the group behind us, the first person got part way across then realized they’d forgotten their hiking poles and had to go back.
The trail resumed on shallow snow and ran flat almost until Waptus Lake where we turned off at a trail sign pointing to Deep Lake. It started up a forest road with patchy, untracked snow, and then became dry. Eventually, we wound up follow the GPS through the brush until we saw a bridge up and to our right. Dry trail! Then we turned left up a valley. It was strange to see a beautifully crafted bridge on the other end of the Spinola Creek Trail when we’d been blocked by a washed out bridge on the other end of that trail.
The dry trail continued up up to an intersection with the PCT. It was cause for celebration and nostalgia as we’d all hiked it in 2016 and it would take us north from Waptus to Deep lake. Shortly after that, there was a small clearing and we saw a large, glossy black bear. It was still for a moment and then sauntered off as I pulled the camera out.
From there it was back up on to the snow which grew deep enough to provide snow bridges over the small streams running down the hillside. It was while standing on one of these that I reached down to my hipbelt pocket to get my phone. The phone wasn’t there. My phone is too big to fit in the pocket so I’d been wedging three of its corners in and zipping it as closed as I could. This is a common issue with my model of backpack which was resolved in the next model. No wonder mine had been on sale. We noted the position and resolved to start a search from there back to the bear sighting on our way out the next day.
The snow was eventually deep enough to cover everything except a small rocky point where we stopped for a quick break and one last look back down the valley before getting to Deep Lake. It was kinda fun deciding whether to take switchbacks or cut straight up them since we didn’t have to worry about erosion. While the PCT is relatively well graded, we tended to wander up and down across the snow, leading to a new euphemism for pointless-ups-and-downs (usually an Appalachian Trail expression): “the alternate PCT experience”.
The trail splits to go around a small hill shortly before Deep Lake We tried to go right, down to the river, crossing it on a snowbridge, then rising slowly through a meadow to the east of the hill. We couldn’t find a way which didn’t dump us into the raging outlet stream from Deep Lake and wound up going over the hill. Sometimes it’s nice to travel on well packed snow since you don’t have to worry about the bushes whacking you when you’re off trail. Also, there’s boot skiing.
After wandering over what would have been a swamp if it weren’t buried in snow, we reached the final water crossing. Initially, it looked like we’d have to slide down a snowbank then jump into the river. I was kind of looking forward to trying it since it was shallow where you had to jump in but, perhaps for the better, we found a snowbank with a little bare dirt at the bottom just up from the egress point. From there, it was a flat walk to Deep Lake with a Cathedral Peak rising over it.
We found a small raised spot to set up camp. There were tress which was a comforting sign that we weren’t actually camping on the lake. Also, the GPS app had a tent sign there. Out came my luxury items: a foam pad to put my gear on without it freezing, insulated booties with dry socks (as the sun went behind the ridge above us, the snow hardened so these didn’t get wet), and three sticks of firewood.
The problem with having packed in the firewood is that we still didn’t really have any tinder or anything to make a base for the fire. My little swiss army knife wasn’t going to split much in the way of kindling from the logs. Ultimately, we found some large, sodden pieces of bark to make a floor which, if less then ideal, was at least better than trying to lay the logs on the snow directly. Burnable trash served as the tinder and some scavenged twigs broken off dead branches above the snow made for kindling. It took a long time and a lot of tending to build a core of heat strong enough to get the large logs to catch. Ella and I were on opposite sides and would frequently blow on our side of the fire to give it more oxygen. This would send a plume of smoke and steam into the other person’s face. Everything steamed, even the kindling and moss, so drying the fuel wound up being a key part of fire tending. We’d placed one log angled across the other two which sat on the mat of bark, hoping that it would trap some heat and eventually catch. It wasn’t until we put some small branches over the top log, that it stayed lit and we could spend enough time away from fire tending to actually enjoy the fire and dry our shoes.
The fire was so weak that despite initially having tried to use trekking poles to hold our shoes the way a marshmellow or hot-dog is roasted, we were able to simply hold the shoes with our bare hands. Done properly, this warmed our hands as well. The shoes would steam whenever they were brought away from the fire which was a delightful visual effect. Ross missed out on the fun, having turned in early to make up for the late night of driving. He might have been able to warm his feet up after all the snow and snowmelt.
Day 2 (Sunday)
Sunday was a lazy morning, aided Cathedral Peak which blocked the sun until it was high enough to crest the ridges above us. Breakfast in bed is a luxury in a normal house where building codes enforce the separation of sleeping accommodations and stoves (at least, so I assume, what other reason could there be?). In a tent you can roll onto your side and make breakfast in an open vestibule.
We packed up and wandered back through the snow, taking the other way around the hill from the afternoon before to avoid some of the soggier snow. I asked Ross for his early-life story starting and he started sharing an excellent biography starting with his parents. There’s something about walking which takes the pressure off talking. There’s no need to be funny, or engaging, to have a point or punchline. Your body enjoys the “alternate PCT” experience and your mind enjoys conversation and companionship.
As we came out of the snow onto the dry trail, we started to keep an eye out for my phone. Eventually, someone remembered a downed tree which I had crawled under and so had probably knocked my phone out of it’s insecure place on my hipbelt. Still, we checked other likely spots where I’d jumped over trees or between rocks. Ross and I were moving at a normal pace, but keeping a lookout. Ella was walking notably slower and her downcast face looked sad. She dragged her hiking poles like she was moping. Technically, this isn’t too strange since Ella doesn’t usually bring trekking poles and when they’re not necessary she does strange and playful things with them instead of carrying them in a balanced position or using them unnecessarily like a normal person. Still, she cut a sad figure as she looked for my phone.
When we reached the deadfall which I’d crawled under and probably lost my phone, I took my pack off so I could looks around properly. I was first on scene but nothing jumped out at me. I was about to crawl under and take a closer look when Ella arrived and immediately dove under the tree. After poking around for a second, she ecstatically exclaimed that she’d found it and passed it back out to me. I tried to get a picture of her still fumbling around under the log but was too late. We then got a delightful story from her childhood illustrating how much she loves finding things.
We followed the PCT down to Waptus Lake but missed the turnoff down the Spade Lake Trail as well as the intersection with the Waptus Lake Trail and so walked almost to the end of Waptus Lake before we turned around. The Waptus Lake Trail is set back far enough from the lake in places that you can’t see the water. The trail came and went under large clusters of deadfall so we got to wander around some, this time on logs and dirt instead of snow.
Eventually, we found a spot with a peek-a-boo view of the lake and a small entrance to it. We ate a first lunch. The temperature difference between the shade and the sun was surprising and we wound up putting fleeces on. The Ice Queen only needed hers after an expletive laden, short swim. Apparently there are limits of cold tolerance. Wim Hoff was discussed.
A quick jaunt brought us back around Waptus Lake, across the Waptus River, to that perfect lunch spot from the prior day, now occupied with a tent. We stopped and snacked. This time Ross balanced on a log on his back instead of his feet.
The trail from here out was dry and fast. A few of the rock hops turned out not to be safe in this direction so everyone got their feet wet. It was incredible how Ella and I had accumulated a number of small lacerations on our legs while Ross’s seemed almost untouched, even when he stumbled on a root and kicked his shin right into a pointed branch. I’ve contrasted Ella and Ross’s hiking motions before and this time I noticed Ella’s knees knocked and were starting to chafe. Ross’s legs were perfectly straight. I wonder if I move more like Ella given our shared magnetism for minor abrasion.
There was a fork in the trail which I didn’t remember and without looking at the map, would have chosen the way with a little more climbing. Fortunately, Ella wasn’t too lazy to pull out her GPS app and we dropped to an old forest road which carried us back to the road to the parking lot. A few minutes later and Ella acted out a end-of-hike tantrum. It’s a fun tradition for conveying how wonderful a medium hiking is for painting friendships. Another good tradition is Ross bringing out camp chairs, beer, and chocolate. Such a pity that you have to wait an hour after consuming an alcoholic beverage to drive safely. The light began to soften as we closed out another fun day in the great outdoors.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.