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 :)


  1. I just discovered your blog a few days ago, and I went to the beginning and have been reading all your posts. These are the kind I like the most, your personal solo runs in the mountains. Please post often.