Monday, August 29, 2011

Angel's Staircase Sweep Recap

I was planning to reprise adventures in the Sawtooth-Chelan area the next weekend in the same general area as the Angel's Staircase 25k, 50k, and 50 mile races. I figured it would be fun to backpack most of the course (plus a bit) and see friends running through. That plan got modified when Kevin asked me to sweep the 50 mile course with him.

"No, no, no...I don't want to go that far in a day. My body needs a break. And I want to sleep under the stars."

"But on the other hand, I could sweep a gorgeous course...."

"Oh well, tapering is over rated, right?"

So, I devised a compromise.

We backpacked our overnight gear to the top of the saddle adjoining the Staircase. From there we continued on with daypacks as sweeps. I stopped and waited at a pass so I wouldn't be doing the entire 50 miles (although, I ended up doing 46 in the end anyway). I laid in the sun on Deadman's Pass and basked in the beauty of the mountains. But after nearly 2 hours I was beginning to wonder where Kevin was. The sun was sinking inevitably westward and we still had 25 miles to sweep.

He arrived sweaty and cranky from carrying heavy signs and a water jug through less than optimal trails. We grabbed some food that the aid station crew had cached for us below the pass and headed out. The trail wound through beautiful meadows and forests and the light played on the peaks. The mosquitoes were abysmal. It was nearing evening when we reached the nearly empty water cache and were able to finally stop carrying the 5 gallon jug. We filled our water rapidly because the mosquitoes were feasting on us. Then we ran.

Long sweeping switchbacks into the valley.

From the pass above the cache and beyond we watched as purple dusk cloaked the eastern hills of Washington. Stars began to ping the blanket of sky. We'd been going for 15 hours and we had 15 miles to go–at a minimum–before we could shortcut to our camp. Welcome coolness covered us as we moved along. We eagerly awaited the next aid station so we could get much needed water and food. It was fully dark when we reached an unsigned junction and for a moment we were confused as we walked tree to tree with our headlamps, looking for weather beaten Forest Service signs. We determined we were only a short distance from the aid station and continued on the trail bending right. About .2 later I stopped.

"If there was no race sign at the junction, then that means the aid station workers took it. If the aid station workers took it, that means they packed up and hiked out already, down the other trail. If they're gone then there is no food or water for us. And there is no one for us to give these signs too."

With that realization we looked at the dozen or more re-bar signs in our hands and turned around. There was no way we were going to carry them 10 more miles!! We got back to the junction and stacked them along the trail for the race director to come get when he packed out the water cache later. Then we continued on.
The forest was dark and silent, except for the occasional sound of creeks. We made noise for bears as we trotted along. We were tired and starting to get sore. We were out of water and food, cranky and dehydrated. Finally we reached the junction to Cooney Lake.

We dropped the signs we had in our hands. There was no way we were going to finish the course tonight and backtrack to camp...our original plan. We'd take the shortcut past Cooney.

As with most accessible back country lakes there were myriad social trails and campsites networking the area and we soon dead ended. It was late and we were tired and we could see the ridge where our warm sleeping bags and a Nalgene of water were. But no trail connecting the two. After a few minutes of detective work I located the trail and we were on our way again. The climb was short, but it felt steep after 17 hours of moving. We shut off our headlamps and climbed by full moon light. Shooting stars raced across the sky. All was silent and wild.

The top of the pass was windy. Since the weather was good, we hadn't brought a tent so we put on every stitch of clothing we had. This included me wearing my rain jacket–and Kevin's swim shorts over my wool pants! We huddled in our sleeping bags. I made a wall from the bear canister and my shoes to block the wind from putting out the stove. Even that wasn't enough and I coiled around it, trying not to catch my sleeping bag on fire. Unfortunately, the efficiency was still diminished by the wind and we ate half cooked pasta before falling asleep.

4 hours later dawn turned the horizon to fire and illuminated the North Cascades with the joyous glow of a new day. We peeked from our bags and I managed to take a few pictures. So

An hour later I awoke...roasting. The sun was firmly above the horizon and the wind gone. The desperate layering of last night was now cooking us. We quickly packed up and headed down to Cooney Lake, picked up our signs and continued. Thankfully, a couple miles later the final aid station had left us some water. We filled and ran...the mosquitoes!!!

About 2 miles from the finish we met the Race Director coming up and we gratefully let him carry some of the signs and water jugs. When we reached the end he cooked us some veggie burgers and even had managed to save 1 beer from the racers for us to share.

It was certainly not the adventure I'd been planning, but it was "good hundred miler training" ;)

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