Saturday, August 30, 2014

UPWC 2014: Alpine Lakes Grand Tour or "That Time I Tried to Run from Leavenworth to Snoqualmie Pass"

So let's get one thing straight: I hate goats.

Ok, so hate is probably the wrong word. They are excellent dramatic features clinging to sheer rock walls and impressive examples of adaptation. More correctly, habituated goats freak me out. So when a guy enthusiastically informed me that "very friendly" goats were just ahead I had to force a smile and then duck to grab rocks as soon as he turned away. I booked it for Asgard Pass, zipping past the "friendly goat" as fast as I could.
Views from Asgard Pass

That's sort of how the day started as well. I left the Snow Lakes TH at 6:13 am and bounced up the trail...Snoqualmie bound. Far, far below Nada Lake, while I was still on the switchbacks, I looked up to see a nanny and two kids. I stood and yelled, but she just stared at me with beady black eyes, probably trying to decide of I were in need of a pee.

In exasperation I hopped up the talus, over and around them.

I cruised through the Enchantments realizing why I don't do this run often. It's an awful lot of work for a few miles of lakes. And I hate lakes. Well, I don't hate them, per se. I'd just rather look at them from a ridge or summit than actually go to one.

The Enchantments might strike out when it comes to "Things Anish Likes," but, as usual, it was a lovely stretch of trail and I really enjoyed it. Although I think I enjoyed bombing down Asgard Pass more...

Heading for Colchuck Lake

Goats and fancifully named  lakes behind me I zipped up past 8 mile Lake and Lake Caroline toward Windy Pass. The climb was gorgeous and I couldn't help but think it would be a much better place to reintroduce the grizzly than the currently studied North Cascades NP.

Perfect Lighting

I couldn't help but look back and marvel at the formidable gray towers of the Enchantments from my current position on mellow green slopes bathed in golden light. There was no doubt which landscapes I prefer. I danced up the trail wishing I had enough time to climb Cashmere, but secretly glad I didn't so I'd have an excuse to come back.

Ascending toward Windy Pass and Looking back at the Enchantments


I popped over the crest of the pass and stopped in my tracks. "Oh. My. God."

The light, the silhouette of the Stone Kingdom, the rolling intermittent ridges, the clear blue sky freckled with was the everything moment: the one where it all comes together and literally makes your jaw drop.

Windy Pass

I plopped into the dirt by the cairn and rifled through my pack eating pretty much anything I could find. I was vaguely worried about whether I had enough food to reach my destination. Those towering summits near Snoqualmie looked very far away.

I drank in the views for a few more moments and then headed down the trail. It quickly became obvious that this side was not well traveled or maintained. Tread vanished in meadowy areas, it was eroded, and the trail was indistinguishable from the forest floor. The switchbacks near the bottom had me pausing with regularity to determine where exactly to head next. I hopped from rock to rock across a small creek and in an instant I found myself bear hugging a boulder with my butt on the rock I'd been standing on, both legs dangling in the water. I laughed as I hauled myself up and carried on...sloshing through the pine needles. I soon found myself wading through bushes before arriving at another creek crossing. Feet already wet I splashed across and promptly found the junction with the Trout Creek Trail.

Feeling the Stoke

I fast hiked toward the lake, really a flooded meadow, and consumed a gel. I hit the Jack Ridge Trail and immediately knew I had to get over it before dark. I had thought the descent from Windy Pass was vague, but now I realized that it looked like the yellow brick road compared to this trail segment.

I powered up the climb and at the top blew through the sticks that blocked off the obvious trail ahead. As I ran past it I felt an uneasy niggle in the back of my mind. That part of me that has traveled so many miles and usually alerts me to a blunder. I glanced below and saw no trail dropping down the side so I continued along the ridge. The trail was well defined, but I felt rising anxiety: "This doesn't match the map. You're supposed to cross the ridge and wrap back below the point."

Stoked...before Jack Ridge

About .2 down the ridge I decided that I should listen to that voice and go back. I sped back along the ridge and was surprised to see two faded trails coming from the direction I had ascended. I stood for a second, unsure of which one I'd actually come up. Then it all snapped into place with the lines on the map and I went sprinting down the ridge in the correct direction.

I hit my first switchback and nearly slid on pine needles. The trail on this side was possibly even worse than the other. I hustled to descend the switchbacks as quickly as possible. The sun was fading fast. Huckleberry bushes slapped at my legs and I guessed at the location of the trail as I descended. I heard a large animal crashing through the underbrush, but I was more concerned with getting myself to the bottom before full dark. My ever-present hope was that the Jack Creek Trail was better maintained.

Deep dusk reigned as I popped into a clearing. A well used horse camp sprawled between me and the river. I spied a weathered sign nailed to a tree and dashed to it, squinting in the low light to read. Jack Creek Trail.

I shrugged off my pack and pulled out my headlamp and ate some more food. I retied my shoes and put my shirt back on. Sunglasses and visor stashed. I saw with relief that the trail was wide and well used. I shouldered my pack and trotted off.

I listened carefully in the darkness as the creek drew close and then moved away. I knew that as soon as it drew close again I would have to cross. I had a suspicion that the Meadow Creek Trail might be unmarked so I watched for evidence of a crossing with hawk like intensity.

It was fully dark, well after 9pm, when I entered a meadow. The creek was loudly splashing alongside again and I saw another sprawling camp...sure sign of a trail junction. Sure enough a trail led through the camp to the water. I plunged into the mid-calf water and waded across. On the other side a large ax blaze was carved into a tree. I followed the trail past a cut log and into thick brush. I clambered over a fallen tree and then...

The next two hours I bushwhacked through thick undergrowth, climbing over fallen trees, seeking out obscured trail tread and old blazes, the occasional cut log. I pieced a route half a mile or less from the river crossing that matched the map, yet there was virtually nothing on the ground. I followed game trails, zigged and zagged and scoured. I used every technique I've ever used to follow missing trail. I recrossed the creek twice more. I ran a half a mile upstream and then down; seeking a missed junction. I looked for a sign on the trees at the horse camp. In the end it was all in vain.

By 11:30pm I realized that not only had I not eaten in almost 3 hours, but also that I was very far behind my schedule. I definitely did not have enough food to camp and try in the morning, nor to attempt a protracted bushwhack. I crossed the creek for the last time and headed back. It was going to take many hours and a lot of concentration to retrace my steps over Jack Ridge and up to Windy Pass. I would be lucky to arrive there by 8am.

A few minutes down the trail I stopped to put on my jacket. I pulled out my maps to shuffle the old maps to the front again. The words "Jack Creek Trail" lept out at me from the bottom of the route description page. I read it, then read it again to make sure I wasn't imagining things. Then I sat down and laid out all my maps aligned and read the description of option two yet again, tracing it with my finger.

"From Rock Island Campground on the Icicle Creek Road follow Jack Creek Trail South to Meadow Creek Trail..."

I gathered my maps and tucked them into my pocket. If I was reading this right the Jack Creek Trail would take me to Icicle Creek Road. I estimated it would be less than 7 miles. I reached the Jack Ridge junction and deliberated for a second. If I was wrong I could get lost...or at least waste several hours. But, if I was right...

Artifacts at the Jack Ridge Jct.

I continued down the Jack Creek Trail. I found my running legs on the good tread and felt my confidence rise with every stride. I switch-backed down and eventually crossed a large metal horse bridge. My heart soared...they don't build those very far into the wilderness!

I reached an abandoned trailhead parking lot at 1:50 in the morning. I ran out to the road and turned right. Something seemed off though. The more traveled roadbed seemed to be the the left. I turned around and saw a sign that said "Trail head" facing the other way. Lights shone through the forest.

I decided that the Icicle Creek Road must switchback or something and I started running west. Soon the road looped around and I was at the Rock Island Campground. To my surprise I saw someone walking around in the lights I had seen.

I walked into the campsite and was greeted with stares. Two men sat at the picnic table, one played with a large knife. I could smell alcohol from several yards away.

"Hi, I'm a little that the Icicle Creek Road out there?"

Man 1: "Lost?! Do you know what time it is?"

"Uh, yes."

Man with Knife: "Yes, that's Icicle Creek."

"Ok, great. Um, how far to the Snow Lakes Trail head."

MwK: "Where is that?"

Oh boy...

M1: "Is that where your car is?"

"No, it's at Snoqualmie. How far to Leavenworth?"

M1: "You're trying to get to Snoqualmie on FOOT?!"

MwK: "We're 16 miles from Leavenworth."

"Ok, thank you." I hastily exited despite the other questions being incredulously asked. Man 1 simply kept repeating "Snoqualmie on FOOT!"

I reached the road and started running. I glanced back a few times, nervous that they might follow. Soon though I was lost in the beauty of night running and the bliss of being able to run in an even rhythm for the first time all day.

I ran down the middle of the road. I heard animals crash in the brush. Noisy creeks collided with Icicle...constantly reminding me that I was out of water. On principle I never drink close to a road, but I was sorely tempted.

5 miles in I stopped and clicked off the headlamp. I spun in circles in the middle of a dead end forest road with my face tilted up to the sky. Stars spun in my vision; the Pleiades, Milky Way, Andromeda...the pure overwhelming vastness of the cosmos filled my soul. I thought of my ascent of Pinchot Pass 2 months ago and the similar moment. This time however, I was alert, my body not in duress, and I was able to simply revel in the splendor.

I clicked on my light and continued on.

At 4am I reached Snow Lakes Trail head. I texted a few people I thought might be able to "rescue" me and get me back to my car. Then I pulled on my rain jacket and a pair of tights and crawled into the bushes. I draped my emergency blanket over me and fell fitfully asleep for the next two hours.

Nap Time!

I woke and got water from acquaintances that just happened to roll into the trailhead as I was leaving. I clipped on my pack and trotted down the road the last 4.5 miles to hwy 2. I stopped for coffee and Trailbutter along the way...laughing as I ran alongside pastures drenched in mellow morning light and into the town that was just waking up.

I did eventually reach my car after hitchhiking with a Frenchman and hanging out at the Monroe Safeway for 4 hours. All in all I was awake for 40 hours. My bed felt AWESOME that night!

Recovery...Safeway Style :)

Friday, August 8, 2014

UPWC 2014: Mother Mountain/Northern Loop

This is a joint blog with Kevin Douglas about our participation in the Ultrapedestrian Wilderness Challenge: Mother Mountain/Northern Loop 2014. All photo's courtesy Kevin Douglas. Thank you Ras and especially Kathy for designing this great route!

In 2010 I hiked the Wonderland Trail and was blown away by its difficulty and beauty. I was stoked to see Kathy’s Mother Mountain/Northern Loop UPWC route because I have always wanted to go back and explore more in the Rainier area.

So, on July 20th, Kevin Douglas and I set out from Mowich Lake in the fog and rain to complete the 45+ mile route. We embarked hoping that the cloud cover would rise and we would finally be able to see the beautiful mountain(s) we were running around. Unfortunately that wouldn’t happen for us.

The descent from Ipsut Pass was a miserable drenching through the thick brush that overhung the trail. 
                           Nearing the Carbon River in the lush fairy forest below Ipsut Pass

We reached the Carbon River and I was surprised to see that the bridges were different than they were four years ago. However, staring at the raging brown torrent threading through the forest, I wasn’t too surprised. The glacial rivers pouring off of Ranier are humungous and powerful. They rearrange the landscape in whatever way they wish on a regular basis.
Carbon River at work

Former Wonderland Trail went straight here until the River decided otherwise!

We descended the bank and walked toward the tilted bridges. We laughed nervously and took pictures of the water cascading across the logs we were about to walk on.  
Uh, we're going to wade across the bridge?

 Kevin decided to take a video and started across. I followed, consciously not looking down to avoid getting dizzy from the frothing water.

Don't look down!

We reached the opposite bank and decided it was snack time. In the process of de-layering and eating we discovered our DeLorme inReach was not working. We decided to try and use Kevin’s Garmin to record the rest of our route, but—despite repeated tries throughout the day—the thick clouds blocked his satellite signal. 
More destruction (re-creation?) 

Kevin gets creative

We decided to take pictures of as many junction signs as possible to document our progress instead, but I won't post them all here. That would be rather boring. Except this one, because it's funny...

We switchbacked up through the forest at a steady clip. As we reached Yellowstone Cliffs camp junction the clouds began to break up and swirl away. 

Dewey forest

sunlight leaks into the forest

Suddenly towering cliffs soared above us and we were surrounded in a magnificent world of bear grass and wild flowers. 
"Whoa!" --Heather

An unconcerned deer browsed only feet away. 

Bolstered with optimism that the weather would continue to improve we plunged onward, soon encountering snow in Tyee Park as we climbed to Windy Gap. We followed fresh boot tracks for a while before encountering their owners: two heavily laden young women headed for the Natural Arch. We chatted and passed by sneaker skiing down the snow. It was fairly easy to follow the route downward and we again entered forest.

Soon we saw a man with a running pack coming uphill toward us. We said hello and passed on, commenting that we didn’t know him, but maybe he was doing the same thing? A few moments later Mike Chastain appeared and we stopped to chat for a few minutes. They were running the Northern Loop.

We continued on through the forest, across the White River and then began to ascend up to Grand Park. 

The clouds settled back in and we resigned ourselves to no more vitamin D for the day. As we wound across the wide open expanse of Grand Park Kevin suddenly remembered he’d been there before. It was funny to hear him recount stories of a run he’d done years ago in this same place that he’d completely forgotten about. As we passed landmarks he’d excitedly proclaim some details.

Looking down at the White River

Grand Park

Soon we merged with the Wonderland Trail in Berkeley Park and it was my turn for nostalgia. I described the rest of our route back to the Carbon River as we evaluated the fact that we were moving much slower than anticipated. We ate some food and then headed out into the fog, making a concerted effort to run more than we had been.

Soon we ran into another Seattle area runner who warned us about a bear and cubs near Mystic Lake. We pushed onward, marveling at the powerful White River as it poured out of the Glacier. 

As we reached the bridge we saw Mike and friend coming across as they wrapped up their run for the day. We paused on the other side to look back at Garda Falls and take some pictures. I told Kevin that when I had backpacked the loop before I had misread the map and thought it was called "Giardia Falls." We laughed that it was probably the only waterfall I'd ever remember the name of.

Garda Falls

We continued winding our way up and down and along the tongues of moraine in the area until we once again were in forest. We noted several fresh piles of bear scat and enthusiastically scoured the woods for a glimpse of a bear. Eventually we decided that Rainier bears must all wear deer costumes to avoid tourists.
I remarked to Kevin that although I had hiked through here before I had absolutely no memory of Mystic Lake. And it’s a big lake!! We passed the lake and climbed up and up. We reached the ridge and headed down, excited for some free running…then the trail started up again. Oops…we missed that bump on the map!

We finally began our long descent to the Carbon and my legs were just not wanting to turn over. This was my longest outing and only third run since my DNF on the JMT at the end of June. My body was letting me know that it was tired.
Carbon Glacier

We reached the lovely suspension bridge across the river and ate a quick snack. We joked about the discrepancy between the two crossings and decided the park service clearly liked people doing this section of trail more than the other.

Upper Carbon River Crossing

Just above Carbon River Camp we met a man headed down. He informed us he’d departed from Ipsut Pass that morning, but there had been too much snow in Seattle Park for him to navigate and so he’d had to turn around and go back to Carbon River Camp. We parted ways and Kevin and I tried to figure out what the heck he’d been talking about. Finally we realized that he’d tried to do the short loop around Mother Mountain and hadn’t encountered snow on Ipsut, but up ahead and was turning around there instead of completing the loop.

We speculated whether the snow would be a big deal or not. We only had a few hours before dark and no layers or overnight gear. We decided that it probably wasn’t that bad and our combined backcountry skills would be adequate. We continued to climb and shortly before we reached Seattle Park we met a group of 5 guys who were practically vibrating with adrenaline. They emphatically warned us about the snow ahead and how they’d been lost for an hour. We could see them staring at our tiny daypacks and trail running shoes with concern. We reassured them we’d be fine and continued on. I felt a twinge of unease in my gut.
Boardwalks in the Park
Once in the park it began to mist. The temperature was dropping and the clouds were thick and low. We were soon on snow, searching for cairns and melted out sections of trail. The fog had rolled in lowering our visibility to about 50 ft. We got out the map, but there was no way to orient since we could see no landmarks. We climbed as rapidly as we could, fueled now on our own adrenaline.

Starting to hit snow

As with all good adventures we were so preoccupied with getting ourselves out alive that we didn't take any pictures of the next section. I can assure you they'd be misty whiteouts with a few vague shadows of rocks and krumholtz.

I was getting cold. My propensity for Reynoud’s attacks as well as hypothermia had me growing increasingly concerned as the wind picked up. I knew that without visible landmarks we would have an incredibly hard time hitting the defined point of the trail at the other end of all this snow. Darkness was imminent and a night out would surely kill me…
“Do you see footprints coming downhill?” I asked Kevin.
“Yes! A couple sets over here.”
“We need to follow them, especially if they are together.”
Kevin hesitated to trust ourselves to phantom footprints instead of searching for cairns, but I quickly explained my logic.
“We know a group of 4 people just came through here from Mowich. Even if they wandered and wasted some time, they made it through. If we follow their tracks we will too. When they were unsure of the route the tracks will be spread out, when they were more confident multiple sets will be together. We need to try and follow groups of tracks.”
With a plan in place we charged up the slippery snow and through the fog, squinting in an attempt to discern the shadow of tracks in the poor light. We ran along until I finally stopped slightly panicking.
“We are way too fucking high!” I pulled out the map and tried to figure out where we were. Had we inadvertently climbed Ptarmigan Ridge? We must be near 7,000ft. The fog and wind and light rain had me flashing back to Barkley…
I turned the map to align with my compass.
“We have to head that way. If we don’t descend soon we’re going to be in bad shape.”
In my mind I was already evaluating the likelihood of dropping in elevation straight down to the Northwest regardless of trail and figuring it out in the morning. All I knew was that it was essential to get down out of the snow and rain and to warmer temps.
We headed in the direction the compass pointed and within a few yards we saw the footprints converging into a muddy trough that gave way to trail. We beelined to in and were thrilled to see another trough, another section of trail and another ahead…and below us. We’d crossed reached Eagle’s Roost although it was buried under snow and begun to drop off of the pass. Thank God!
“This is good! This means the snow isn’t going to be a problem anymore!”
“Because, look at all the tracks! This is more than one group of guys. People don’t go far into snow. Everyone came to the pass, saw how bad it was and turned around. That means from here down there can’t be much and they will be plenty of tracks.”
We ran, sliding on snow and mud, across long patches of snow and on intermittent trail as we descended into Spray Park. We soon were snow free and passed trail junctions for overlooks and camp. 

Deep dusk caught us as we merged onto the Wonderland Trail for the last .3 miles up to Mowich Lake.
We stepped into the camping area 15:02 after we’d left that morning and embraced.

The route was challenging in ways we hadn’t expected. As far as the elevation and trail tread, all was straightforward. It was the weather that made the difference. We didn’t see much of anything and the cold and rain and especially the final 3 hours in the snow really drained me. I was thankful to come back to the 90 degree heat!