Kendall Dutch Red Bonkers Loop
Mileage: 56-60 miles (watch says 60; Gaia says 59; Caltopo says 56. The truth is somewhere in between.)
Total elevation gain: 14,839’ (Gaia) 15,248’ (watch) 14,134’ (Caltopo)
Elapsed time: 27 hours, 10 minutes
Date: 20-21 July 2019
Introduction: Dreaming up a Route
I like big loops. My eyes wander over maps, connecting dots, dreaming up possibilities that come full circle. Loops lead you back to where you started without retracing steps, leaving you with a sense of completion after having circled epic landscapes. Long, looped runs were a recurring character in my summer of 2019, and this one stands out as the best in every way.
A morning with Rich, spent ogling maps and sipping chai at the ultimate outdoor adventure bookstore, Basecamp in Roslyn, WA, planted the seed for this route. I needed a 50-mile training run leading up to Cascade Crest 100. After considering some of the great Ultra Pedestrian Wilderness Challenge routes, I decided to create my own route. It emerged from the 2-dimensional map laying on the table, imagination connecting the dashed lines on paper into a circular tour of the Central Cascades Range.
Down the map and planning rabbit hole I went. Reading a range of trip reports, and speaking with friends, helped me to narrow my sights on this particular route. I would begin at the PCT trailhead on Snoqualmie Pass and head north toward the Kendall Katwalk. This was a classic PNW destination that had been on my list for some time, and I was excited to finally get there. In my “go big!” way, I envisioned tagging Kendall Peak and Alaska Mountain while I was at it. I would continue north on the PCT for about 34 miles before heading west on the Dutch Miller Gap trail. I just liked the name, and the idea of going through a gap in the mountains and down into the valley below. Dutch Miller would take me down to the Middlefork, an area I had come to know well, but not from this direction. Reaching the Goldmyer Hotsprings, I would ford Burntboot Creek, then take the abandoned Cascade Crest trail up and over Red Pass. This would bring me down to the Commonwealth Basin, which would deposit me back where I’d started. According to my figures on Caltopo, the run would total 56 miles, with more than 14,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Perfect.
Initially, two friends plus a friend-of-a-friend were going to join me up to the Kendall Katwalk, and from there I would continue solo. For this reason or that, though, everyone bailed, but I was excited to go on such a big push alone. It would be the longest and most remote route I’d ever done by myself, and the prospect was quite exciting. At the last minute, though, Seth decided to join me. While I was slightly disappointed not to get my big solo experience, mostly I recalled some of the final words that Chris McCandless wrote: “Happiness only real when shared.” I’m still drawn toward developing a grand solo adventure, but I was happy to be able to share the experience with my partner.
We parked the Westie at the trailhead the evening before so that we could get a little more sleep and avoid a middle-of-the-night drive there. Cozied up in the loft, we talked over the plan for the next day. I had researched all of our water sources, and Seth hand-drew an elevation profile. Looking at the row of sharp triangles, it started to occur to me that this was not going to be the most runnable route. There were a lot of big climbs waiting for us out there. It was a good lesson for me, albeit learned too late for this adventure: always consider just how runnable your route will be.
I had minimized the effort. Taking my slowest White River 50 finish time (12+ hours) and adding 3 extra hours, I initially predicted running my Kendall Dutch Red loop in 15 hours. Seth estimated 20. We identified 24 hours as the longest-case scenario. I brought enough food for 24 hours to be safe. As you saw above, it took us 27 hours.
In literary studies, we refer to this as foreshadowing.
Stepping into the Map Painting: Northbound on the PCT
Before dawn, we were up and at it, and the sun arrives early in a PNW July. We jogged through the ambient light filtering into the forest and passed a group of campers sprawled out on the ground in sleeping bags, fast asleep. It was a little strange to run past them, unnoticed, as they lay there in deep slumber, but there was also something incredibly cute about the scene. The rising sun met us as we emerged from shadows and the tree line. To the west, we could see Red Mountain, easily identifiable from its rusty red rock. How wild to think that before we slept again, we would climb over the pass below its western flank. What a different self we would be then, having seen and experienced so much in the space in between.
When I first learned of the Kendall Katwalk, it sounded like a most terrifying knife edge of a trail. Years later, and with a significant amount of exposed trail under my belt, the reality was a bit underwhelming in terms of the fear factor. In terms of beauty, though, it was every bit as majestic as promised. Jagged peaks loomed in all directions, while deep blue alpine lakes dotted the landscape. To the south, Tahoma stood in its snowy grandeur. In a week, I would, presumably, be standing on top of it.
The scenery was absolutely stunning as we trod the PCT northbound. It’s easy to see why so many have remarked that the J Section is, hands down, the most spectacular stretch on the PCT. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and it was impossible to wipe the smile from my face as we traversed the slopes below Kendall Peak and Alaska Mountain (in the first instance of reason prevailing on this trip, I skipped summitting them.) Soon, summits to the north came into view, including Dakobed (Glacier Peak) as well as Whitehorse Mountain. I found myself stopping frequently to admire the views and snap photos; the landscape simply demanded it.
One moment in particular stands out from this section. As we climbed up a pass and reached the top, another layer of mountains and lakes revealed itself. Seth and I gasped in unison, and a PCT hiker who was resting at the crest chuckled at us and smiled in agreement. This was one of those instances where you’re grateful for company, because there is something magical in sharing a sense of awe at the raw beauty of this place. In my mind’s ear, I can still hear our collective gasp of, “Wow!,” still feel the thump of my heart quickening at the sight. In that space and second, I felt true joy.
Views and Smiles for Miles
Running down from the pass was thrilling, the trail traversing on the edge of rock while alpine lakes sparkled below. Above, summits soared, including a mountain that one of us dubbed the “Triple Dildo,” but which I believe is actually called the Four Brothers. Whatever the name, those spires would be in view for miles, and from multiple perspectives, serving as a landmark for understanding our progress and location. We were solidly on track for an 18-hour finish, and all was good.
We reached a major water source that I had identified, but I had failed to note one key identifying feature: it was a waterfall! How wonderful, to be in need of water, and to have a surprise waterfall show up.
We paused to filter water and chatted with a PCT hiker doing the same. We learned that he was a SOBO, or South Bound, PCT thru-hiker. He had started a few weeks before at the Canadian border, which was a typical start time, we learned, for SOBOs. He also told us that, due to a heavy snow year in the High Sierras, many NOBOs (North Bound PCT thru-hikers) had “flipped.” They had started at the U.S./Mexico border, went as far north as the snow permitted, then switched directions by traveling up to the northern terminus and making their way back south to cover the ground they’d missed. In theory, by the time they reached the High Sierra, the summer sun would have melted the snow so that this section was passable. From there on, we would encounter many PCT thru-hikers, most (if not all) SOBOs.
As a stark contrast to the gushing waterfall, the trail entered a burn from a previous wildfire. It’s always interesting to travel through a burn, with its ghost trees and scorched earth. The mercury was also rising rapidly, heating the day beyond what we’d anticipated encountering high in the alpine air. Here, our different paces became more apparent, as Seth fell behind and I pulled ahead. In this sense, we were having solo experiences punctuated by reunions for breaks under the shade of alpine evergreens.
Climbing up and out of the burn, with the Four Brothers to my left, I marveled at water cascading down the mountainside and at the resiliency of wildflowers blooming among charred logs. It was hot, and the black flies were merciless if you stopped or slowed, but this was still firmly Type 1 Fun.
Big Climbs, Big Views
The next section blurs together a bit (it doesn’t help that I’m writing this 6+ months later), but it was mostly uphill, hot, and buggy. I remember asking two PCT hikers, a mother and daughter I presumed, about a water source; they suggested that it wasn’t that great of a source and that it was a ways off. Of course, my concept of “a ways off” is quite different from that of a thru-hiker, who is carrying much more gear and covering far fewer miles in a day. This proved true in my encounter with a hiker who asked about the next water source and camp site. I replied, “I didn’t look at my watch, but I’d estimate that it’s only about 7 miles to a great water source.” The look on his face screamed deflation and disappointment. “Only” 7 miles is much more significant for a thru-hiker than a day runner. I realized my mistake after reading his face, but there really wasn’t a way to sugar coat the distance to water. I reassured him that he would be so happy when he arrived there, though. There was a thundering stream rushing with snowmelt, and a lovely campsite just above it.
I remember reconnecting with Seth at the top of that very long climb for a short break in the shade of a circle of trees. It was around that time that I realized I had been eating more calories than I should have been, having miscalculated by eating both fig bars in a package at once, instead of over the course of two snack breaks. I’d done this a few times. I was supposed to have 200 calories per hour, for 24 hours. Thanks to my mistake, I would have fewer. This, coupled with the realization that our pace was slowing, resulted in my decision to begin rationing calories.
We decided that I should run ahead and begin filtering water at the next source. It was yet another stunning section, and I thrilled in being up high with such grand vistas all around. After that killer climb, I rode the crest for a while before descending into a bowl that held our water source. A few PCT hikers were taking a break and swapping stories. I felt badly as I walked across what looked like a fragile alpine ecosystem in order to reach the stream. I tried to be as delicate as possible. The flies here were relentless. By the time Seth ambled into the scene, I was losing my mind with flies buzzing in my ears and biting my arms, neck, legs, and any other exposed skin they could find. They were so completely maddening that I broke down and applied DEET-infused bug spray to ward them off.
A Very Long Descent
From here, miles of switchbacks would lead us down to Waptus Lake, right before which we would leave the PCT for Dutch Miller Gap. Again, since I was moving more quickly, we separated for the descent. As I rambled down, I looked out into the distance, where yet another layer of mountains spread out before me. I believe Summit Chief and Overcoat were among the summits on view. On the other side of them was the Middlefork Valley, where this route was leading me. I passed more PCT hikers who were making their way up; some were more friendly than others. I guess a long day, with a big climb at the end, can affect one’s friendliness. Some flashed jealous looks at my gravity-fueled descent and small running vest.
My stomach growled as I rolled down, switchbacking my way into the valley. I grew increasingly anxious about my food supply and had to bargain with myself to space out my calorie consumption. As the trail bottomed out and I ran through the darkening woods, my stomach grew angrier, and my body felt tired. Soon, I reached the junction for the Dutch Miller Gap trail. Across from it was a wide campsite. I noticed something sitting on a log in the deserted campsite: a bag of small corn tortillas and a can of black beans. Looking around to ensure I wasn’t stealing someone’s dinner, I snatched two tortillas and ate them ravenously. The tortillas were so incredibly dry and relatively tasteless, but to me they were little corn circles of heaven. I stowed two for later and grabbed four for Seth. When he strolled in, I giddily showed him my find. It was some PCT trail magic from a PCT trail angel, to be sure. It was, of course, also probably intended for a PCT thru-hiker, but I rationalized that we needed the calories badly and that no one else was in sight.
Up to Dutch Miller Gap
We said goodbye to the PCT, 34 miles into our adventure. We forded a few big streams that flowed down from the mountains toward Waptus Lake and took the opportunity to cool off, clean up, and refill water bottles. We took a short break to peel off our shoes, lay on our backs, and prop up our feet. It was such a relief after a long, hot day in the sun; the flies had apparently gone to bed. I remember this as a refreshing respite. There was a psychological boost in knowing we had turned off the PCT and were, in effect, circling back to the start line of this adventure.
As we prepared to continue on, we discussed going back for the remaining tortillas and beans, eventually deciding that I would run back for the tortillas while Seth walked ahead. It took about 10 minutes to retrace my steps. I grabbed the bag of tortillas (still no other hikers in sight) and left the beans, as we had decided (they would be extra weight, and we’d have to mangle the can open with a small knife.) Back to Seth I ran, eating two more tortillas along the way. When I caught him, he wondered if we (meaning me) should go back for the beans since we were both low on food. I laughed, rolled my eyes, and said that there was no way I was running there and back again. The black bean ship had sailed.
After our respite on the valley floor, the Dutch Miller Gap trail climbed up, and up, and up. It was thrilling to be on a trail that gets very little foot traffic, after having been on a heavily trafficked trail all day. The evening set in and the sun sank lower. The forest at times broke with views that funneled through the valley below, Waptus Lake dominating the scene in the tree-cloaked V between the mountains.
For some reason, this was also the most difficult part of the entire excursion for me. The switchbacks seemed endless. I grew tired, my stomach not quite sated. My mind grew a bit fatigued as well. Seth pulled ahead as my pace slackened. He’d turned on some music, which was barely audible to me as our paths crossed, him above me on the switchback’s zig with me below on the zag. “I just want to get to him so I can hear the music,” was the desperate plea in my head. “C’mon, legs, just go fast enough to catch up so I can hear the music.” As if being able to hear the music would pull me out of this emotional valley. Eventually, I caught him, and the music served as a welcome distraction from my thoughts.
The Gap drew nearer, and we passed crystal pools of water from which trickles emerged to course their way to Waptus Lake, now far below. Seth let out a “Whoa,” then said, “I almost stepped there, and it drops straight down!” It looked like a typical tree-lined side of the trail, but upon closer inspection, I saw that it did indeed drop straight down to eternity. I could tell we were getting a little delirious with fatigue because we laughed a bit wildly at this near miss date with oblivion.
Reaching Lake Ivanhoe lifted our spirits. The magic hour light softened the rock walls surrounding the still lake. It is such a neat feeling to step foot in a place that you’d been studying on a map for so long. For some reason, Lake Ivanhoe had stood out to me on various maps during my research, and it was fun to be standing there in the flesh now. It was as if the long-studied map came to life. We leaped across boulders and skirted around the side of the lake. It’s definitely a spot to which I’d like to return and spend a night. Yet another surprise waterfall delighted us as we navigated the rocky shore. The water reflected back a mirror image of the mountains encircling this little gem of a lake.
As the boulders turned back to trail, we picked up some boot prints. It felt strange to see evidence of humans here, at what I assumed to be a seldom visited spot. I’m not great at reading tracks, but these appeared to be fresh-ish. We never did catch up to the mysterious boot person, but it was fun to follow their tracks and wonder who they were and if they had enjoyed Lake Ivanhoe as much as me.
One of the highlights of this adventure was visiting the source of the Middlefork River. We’ve spent a lot of time playing in the Middlefork valley and have run along long stretches of the Middlefork River. How cool to stand at the headwaters, several small streams that you could leap across with little effort. I’ve only visited the source of one other river, the Whitewater River, which played a starring role in my childhood. Perhaps this is a pilgrimage that one must make: to visit the starting place of rivers that hold special meaning in our hearts, to see them emerge from rock and ice at the beginning of their great journey to the sea.
In the waning light, we traversed marshy meadows of bear grass, their white, bristle blooms swaying in the late evening breeze. The Middlefork morphed from trickles to a broad creek, which we crossed on sturdy bridges, to a thundering mass of churning whitewater pounding over boulders and cascading down slides that we agreed would never be within our packrafting skill set.
I was startled to pass two different sets of campers, having expected not to see another soul on this trail. I stopped to chat with the second group, who mentioned that another runner had recently come through, apparently running the same route. It took a little wind out of my sails to think that someone else was on the exact same route, on the exact same day. I mean, it was a logical loop to attempt, but I couldn’t believe the coincidence. Something the campers said led me to believe this runner wasn’t on the exact same route, and my pride decided to believe that narrative.
From here, the condition of the trail deteriorated exponentially. I had expected rough trail, based on previous trip reports for this section of the Dutch Miller Gap trail, but this was just ridiculous. Tall grasses, soaking wet with evening dew, crowded out the trail. The trail was a narrow little trench, which you couldn’t really see through the grass, so you would take a step and lurch down farther than expected. The dew permeated our clothing as night fell. It was, admittedly, a rather unpleasant sensation. For a moment, the trail would widen, and we would sigh with relief, only to have it narrow again, the grasses clinging to our bodies as we started to shiver in the evening chill. We teetered on the sharp edge between Type 1 and Type 2 Fun.
Eventually we returned to a more trail-like trail that hugged the shore of the Middlefork, then crossed a bridge to the south side. As we meandered through the mossy river valley forest, fatigue took a firm grip of me. The promise of reaching another landmark—Goldmyer Hot Springs—pushed me onward. We caught occasional whiffs of sulfur, telling us we were close. I’d heard so much about these famed hot springs, so it was fun to finally be there for myself (although we wouldn’t actually be able to take a dip.)
After that much time on your feet, I think there’s something of a psychological boost to know that you’ve reached a big landmark on your route. At the same time, reaching a big landmark can feel like you’ve accomplished a big goal, which, in turn, can zap your motivation for moving forward. By the time we reached Goldmyer, I could barely keep my eyes open. Seth agreed to a 10-minute dirt nap. Wrapping myself in a hoody, I set my phone alarm for 10 minutes and was instantly asleep.
It’s pretty amazing to me that I have reached a point where I feel entirely comfortable laying down in the middle of a trail, in the middle of the night, and falling asleep. It seems like such a vulnerable position—one that me of a few years ago would never have considered. It goes to show how much my relationship to the wild has evolved in a short time.
As you might imagine, that alarm went off much too soon, but it was enough to help us keep going. We moved toward the sound of crashing water and beheld what would be one of our greatest challenges of the journey: Burntboot Creek. In trip reports, others had mentioned finding a way across, but we saw nothing viable. Pacing up and down the banks, the whitewater roaring past, it seemed impossible. The creek was much too high and fast to ford. While there was a bailout route available, it would have been one very, very long hike out. We had to get across.
We finally found a tree that spanned most of the river. Seth walked across first and landed safely on the other side. I was so tired, and generally have bad balance, that I opted to shimmy across and not tempt fate. It was, admittedly, a little scary to scoot across the water churning below. Falling in would be bad, bad news. Alas, while not gracefully, I made it across.
Red Pass Ascent
All that remained was one pretty epic challenge: getting up to Red Pass. This entailed navigating up the abandoned Cascade Crest trail, traces of which still remained, albeit faintly. Trip reports made clear that there would be significant blowdown to deal with as well. You might wonder why we were doing this part of the route at night, instead of starting with it. I had spent a lot of time thinking this over. After speaking with two friends, Jessica and Brad, about their experience with this trail and Red Pass, both emphatically encouraged me to go up this trail instead of down it. Both agreed that the blowdown was easier to navigate going up, and that it was preferable to go up the scree on Red Pass instead of down. While I knew that meant saving the absolute hardest part of the route for last, their experience and insight was enough to convince me to go this direction.
It was tough. We’d be on the hint of trail, only to lose it at a switchback. Blowdowns sent us off route. Occasional ribbons helped mark the way. We had GPX tracks that I had drawn, which were useful, but, overall, this was a mentally fatiguing ascent, not to mention the physical challenges it posed as well. Nearly halfway up to Red Pass, I couldn’t go another step and begged for a longer dirt nap.
“Ok, fifteen minutes,” said Seth.
“Twenty-five,” I countered.
My friend Terry says that 23 minutes is the perfect nap length; it’s long enough that you actually fall asleep, but not so long that you drop into a deeper sleep from which it is more difficult to emerge. I have found this to be largely true, and this dirt nap was no exception. It was just what I needed to reenergize and complete this journey.
As we emerged above the tree line, Red Pass came into view. I will be the first to admit that I don’t do so well on scree and have trouble with exposure. Red Pass would clearly offer both. Admittedly, I was a little anxious heading toward the pass. Seeing the faint trace of switchbacks snaking up toward the saddle of the pass, my breath caught in my throat. I reminded myself that it could be worse: we could be going down it instead. With that thought, we pushed toward the final challenge of the adventure.
I’ve learned to handle exposure and ascending scree by keeping my head down and focused on the ground. When rock climbing, I just look straight ahead at the rock, so I’ve applied that to exposed trail and scree fields, and it seems to be working. Of course, with more experience, my anxiety about the one-two punch combo of exposure and scree becomes more manageable, but I’m not sure that it will ever firmly establish itself as Type 1 Fun in my book.
We ascended to Red Pass in the gray of pre-dawn. Reaching the top, I allowed myself to look up, and what a grand sight it was. Mountains flanked us on all sides, and the sky took on the swirl of reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, and purples of sunrise. What a reward after a challenging night, to emerge on the other side and be greeted by such great beauty in all directions. In these moments, I am so grateful to be alive, to live the life that I do. We took a brief rest and silently admired the awakening day.
Closing the Loop in the Commonwealth Basin
From there, we could smell the barn. It was only a matter of descending some switchbacks and then running down the Old Commonwealth Basin Trail and back to the Westie. I had a second wind and was invigorated by the daylight and the thrill of having gone over the pass. When we reached a Y in the trail, we had one final decision to make. My route called for us to continue on the Old Commonwealth Basin trail. I knew it was an abandoned, unmaintained trail, but I had read trip reports of others taking it. My thoughts were a little fuzzy at this juncture, though, and I also recalled a trip report that mentioned rejoining the PCT. We stood at the Y, an “Abandoned Trail” sign nailed to the tree, indicating the trail to the right.
My heart said, “Go right! Complete the route you imagined!” The part of my rational brain that was still functioning said, “It could be as overgrown as the Dutch Miller Gap trail, complete with morning dew to soak you through. There could be blowdowns. Go left.”
For the second time on this adventure, reason prevailed.
We took the left fork and soon rejoined the PCT. I was disappointed to be retracing our steps instead of taking new trail the entire way, but there was no use wringing my hands over it. If the other trail had been bad, it would have been an unpleasant way to end the journey. This final section felt way longer than we remembered, and we reached that point where you’re just ready to be finished. Our pace quickened as the trailhead drew nearer, and soon enough, the Westie came into view. We touched its side in gratitude and laughed about what we had just done over the past 27+ hours. A runner was heading onto the trail, and it turned out to be a guy Seth had met at a race earlier in the year. We told him what we’d just done and laughed about our bonkers idea of fun before launching ourselves into the Westie for some well-earned rest.
At noon, we arose and made our way over to Aardvark to delight in heaping portions of Dan’s delicious Hurry Curry. They even gave us extra pineapple cake, which was the cherry on top of this great adventure. Gleefully eating my fill, I beamed with the joy of having taken an idea and brought it to life in the mountains.