A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Category: Adventure Runs

Livin’ the Map Dream: Kendall Dutch Red Bonkers Loop

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.

The route, painted in Caltopo.

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.

El Blanco Beasto is always ready for an adventure.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

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.

Yeehaw!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Early morning sun and shadow as we climb to the Katwalk.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
The dawn light kissing the summit of Red Mountain (center). We will come over the pass to its left over 20 hours later.

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 famed Kendall Katwalk.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Now north of the Kendall Katwalk, Seth is also in new territory.
Even from a distance, you can tell I’m smiling like crazy.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

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.

Tahoma in the distance.
Looking back at ground we’ve covered. If you look closely, you can see the trail contouring down below the peak at center right.
Contouring along wildflower-studded trail. You can see Seth up way ahead.
Seth stopped to chat with a local.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

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.

Seth running up toward the pass.
Wow! view from the pass.

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.

Running down the other side of the pass, with views that don’t quit.
And back up we go.
I can’t believe we live here! What a fortunate life.

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.

Surprise waterfall!
So delighted to see this cool cascade as the day grows hot.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

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.

Sentinel ghost trees watch as the landscape rebuilds itself after the fire.

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.

One of my favorite views from the adventure. I paused to take it in and trace the stream cascading down from snow and rock through shades of green.

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.

Finally, something runnable, after all that climbing!

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.

See ya at the watering hole!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
Heading down to the water source, and into the land of biting black flies.

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.

The long descent begins.
Waptus Lake viewed from above as we wind down the mountain.

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.

So many great options!

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.

Seth consults the elevation profile after having found the perfect rock for propping up our feet.

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.

Looking back at Waptus Lake as we ascend to Dutch Miller Gap.

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.

Slowly edging closer to Dutch Miller Gap.

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.

One of my favorite moments in the adventure: reaching Lake Ivanhoe as the day came to a close. I’m very excited to go back and camp at this magical place.
Lake Ivanhoe reflects the mountains above.

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.

At the source of the Middlefork River, where it emerges in tiny rivulets.

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.

Meandering down the Dutch Miller Gap trail, along with the tiny Middlefork, as the sun sets.
Bear grass meadow in the last moments of magic hour light.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin
It was surprising to see so many bridges and boardwalks on a trail that doesn’t get many visitors these days.
Photo Credit: Seth Wolpin
The day grew quiet and still as we jogged down the Dutch Miller Gap trail.

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.

Night Falls

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.)

Giant salamander chillin’ on the trail near Goldmyer.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

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.

Successful crossing of Burntboot Creek! You can see the tree bridge behind me.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

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.

Dawn breaks as we rise above tree line on the old Cascade Crest trail.
There is something special about pushing all through the night, only to be greeted by mountains at sunrise as your journey comes to a close.
Easy ascending up the old Cascade Crest trail toward Red Pass, after a night of blowdowns and route finding.
Dawn breaks over the Cascades.

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.

Lovely scree and exposure as we near Red Pass.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

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.

Red Pass is in the top right of the frame. If you look closely, you can see the trail zig-zagging up it.

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.

Looking back from the top of Red Pass as the soft morning light colors the mountains.
Closing the loop, as we head down into the Commonwealth Basin, with Tahoma swirled in clouds in the distance.

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.

Tired, happy people.
Photo credit: Matt (I think)

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.

Over the Blast Zone and through the Boulder Fields: A Loowit Circumnavigation

Loowit Circumnavigation (Single-Push)

Mileage: 32.25 miles

Elevation Gain: +7549’

Date: 30 June 2019

Total Elapsed Time: 13 hours, 29 minutes

This was my first circumnavigation of a stratovolcano, and, oh my, was it wonderful. I spent a week or two reading trip reports and studying maps; decided on our trailhead entry point; second-guessed it; and rerouted at the absolute last moment. After much deliberation, I decided that we would begin at the Climber’s Bivouac trailhead. This would put us through the largest boulder field and the blast zone before it got too hot, plus it helped strategically set up our water options for later in the day. Feeling sure of this plan, we arrived at the parking lot the night before; had a few too many drinks for people who were going to run around a volcano early the next morning; and tucked into the back of Jen’s car for a little sleep.

Up before dawn, we were on trail as the sun rose above the horizon. Part of this early section links up with the winter summit route, which I had done in May, and with Jen the year before. It was neat to see what lay beneath the snow that I had traversed just a little more than a month earlier.

Officially on the Loowit Trail!
PC: Jen Schneider
Dawn breaks, with Klickitat on the horizon.
Soft, early morning light hits the trail.
Wy’East, faint in the distance.

We hit the first big boulder field before long. It’s part choose your own adventure, but there are some helpful poles to mark the way. We had GPX tracks as well as a good sense of direction, so we managed to navigate this quite easily.

The first boulder field. Can you spot the wood pole marking the way?

I had read countless trip reports that talked about how difficult it is to navigate the boulder fields and the blast zone; about the insanity of the gullies we’d be going down and back up; and about the scarcity of water. I never want to take trip reports with a grain of salt, and thus potentially minimize the endeavor, but our experience proved to be quite unlike what others reported. The trail was easy to keep, or to find if we veered briefly; the routes through the gullies were obvious, complete with ropes for hauling yourself out; and we never were wanting for water sources. It’s better to be prepared for the worst, but we laughed a bit at how over-prepared we were.

One of many perspectives of the summit we’d see throughout the day. The sun still hasn’t risen high enough to light this side of the mountain. PC: Jen Schneider

That’s not to say this route isn’t challenging; it’s certainly a rugged 50+ kilometers, and we spent over 13 hours out there, but we found it pretty manageable. It’s quite incredible to circumnavigate a volcano. You see it from every angle, and you pass through so many distinct ecosystems en route. While others take 2-4 days to work their way around, there’s something to be said about going in one push, taking it all in with one big breath.

Making it through the boulder field, we zoomed down through a forest toward the first gully. We marveled at the glacial rivers emerging from snow and ice above, making their way down the flanks of the mountain. Fording the first big river called on me to summon better balance than I’m typically capable of, as we leaped from boulder to boulder, whitewater rushing below.

Up the first gulley! PC: Jen Schneider

Jen coming up. You can see the river we crossed below (South Fork of the Toutle River), and the gulley we descended in the background.
Probably my favorite view of the mountain. The Toutle River emerges here from snow and ice.

Having ascended out of the first set of gullies, a gentle trail welcomed us to run through wildflowers and ogle pristine views of the mountain. This was one of my favorite sections, ambling through at a little lope and soaking in the beauty of this place. You could sense the blast zone ahead on the horizon, so that also filled me with anticipation, eager to greet the unknown.

Running north along this gentle stretch.
Running through wildflowers, with Spirit Lake in the distance.
Anticipation builds as the trail turns east toward the blast zone.

Running through the blast zone is like running on a lunar landscape. There’s no other way to describe it. Debris, rubble, boulders—a mix of every type of rock size and texture you can imagine—carpet the ground, while the gaping hole in the mountain’s side looms to the right. On our left, Spirit Lake shimmered in the warming sun. We ended up walking through much of the blast zone; it was just too incredible to move through too quickly. We were a little dumbstruck by it, imagining the power of the eruption and landslide that sent this mountain sliding down in a rage and shooting into the atmosphere. We paused to find the summit and noted how wild it was to be looking up at the place where a year before we stood looking down. A former student once said to me, “I like the view from below best, because it lets you see where you’ve been.” I always recall her words when I’m standing below something I once stood upon; I think she is on to something there.

It was quite eerie to stand here and contemplate the force of the landslide and eruption. You can see the true summit in the far distance, just to the right of the center of the photo.
Finding our way through the blast zone.
The trail becomes more distinct once through the blast zone.

We had a brief navigational dispute crossing the blast zone (I won’t say who ended up being right), but we eventually climbed up and out from that weird and wild world. As we traversed up and over Windy Pass, we paused for one last glance back at the blast zone before heading on toward the Plains of Abraham. Here, the route treated us to sweeping views to the east, with Klickitat making another appearance. We had a nice chat with some campers, one of whom pumped us for information as he contemplated doing the Loowit Trail in one push himself. “Do it!” we said.

Ascending to Windy Pass, taking a moment to look back at where we’ve been. You can see the tip of Spirit Lake on the right, and you can faintly make out the trail to the center left.
The Plains of Abraham come into view as we crest Windy Pass. Klicktat swirled in clouds to the left.

This side of the mountain had its own series of gullies, asking our tiring legs to ascend and descend a bit more than we were looking for at that point. Fortunately, beautifully runnable sections punctuated them, and the sun’s intensity had abated for the day.

View of the east face of the mountain, running through the Plains of Abraham.
The brilliant green of the east side is a stark contrast from the earth-toned blast zone.
This photo gets an F for failing to capture the gnar of this gulley.
This section of trail gets a butter score of 9: smoooooth!
The southeast face of the mountain. Almost finished!
Coming back around to the south side of the mountain, where evergreens abound.

Once more, we entered a boulder field, and I did a great job of finding all the unsettled boulders. We came across a woman who appeared to be having trouble staying on route. We tried helping her get a sense of the trail, and she tried to follow us, but she couldn’t keep up. We explained how to follow the poles that marked the trail, and then we pressed on.

Southeast side of the mountain.
Shadows grow long as we lean into one last climb. Klickitat still swirling in clouds out there.

Loowit had one last gigantic climb before we could call it a day. Jen was less than amused by this point, so I had to prod her along. As the sunlight softened into that magical hour, we returned to the spot from which we had started some 13+ hours before. It felt like quite an accomplishment, and we smiled, reflecting on the experience. It certainly whet my appetite for future volcano circumnavigations, which, to my great fortune, are not in short supply here in Washington.

Footspeed: Baby Jogging the Palouse to Cascades Trail, Columbia River to South Cle Elum

Total Mileage: 68.42 over 3 days (26.77; 27.07; 14.58)

Total Elevation Gain: 2950’

Date: June 16-18, 2019

The Palouse to Cascades is a Rails-to-Trails route that starts at the Idaho/Washington Border and makes its way over Snoqualmie Pass and down to Rattlesnake Lake on the western slopes of the Cascades. The 285-mile trail takes in a diverse range of ecosystems as it crosses the state, from the semi-arid high desert in the east, to the lush evergreen forests in the west. Seth and I have been running it in bits while pushing a baby jogger loaded with our camping gear and food. It’s been a way for Seth to relive parts of his epic Transcon journey and for me to get a taste of that adventure. In the spring of 2018, we had a friend drop us off at Hyak, and we ran to the trail’s terminus at Rattlesnake Lake, then pressed onward and linked up a series of bike paths to get us all the way back to Seth’s doorstep in Lake Forest Park (75.48 miles over two days, bandit camping in a clump of trees within the Snoqualmie city limits.) Later that year, we covered the trail from South Cle Elum to Hyak (32.04 miles in 2 days, camping above the Yakima River, near Lake Easton.) There’s something incredible about covering miles on foot that you typically travel by automobile. Your sense of time, distance, and landscape readjusts to a human speed, and you appreciate the nuance and detail that is lost when speeding by at 70 miles per hour. It’s been a fun project, so we decided to take a little vacation before summer classes commenced and piece together another segment.

We had a fun night of laughter, campfire, and stargazing at our good friend Rich’s property in Ronald, WA and woke before dawn to get an early start. Seth’s truck had other plans, which resulted in getting towed to his friend Mike’s house east of Ellensburg. This set our start time back quite late, but we determined to go for it, despite the mercury rising. Mike graciously drove us to our start point near the Columbia River at Beverly Trestle. The old railroad trestle is closed, and we couldn’t find a good way down to dip our toe in the Columbia, so we’ll have to cover that ground in the future. Fortunately, the Washington State legislature passed a bill to fund the rebuilding of the trestle, which, when completed, will eliminate an elaborate—and dangerous—detour on the highway.

This baby is ready to roll.
Photo credit: Mike

Baby jogger packed and bungee cords secured, we headed out into the heat of the day, sunrays streaming down. We would be crossing the Army’s Yakima Training Center, a 22 mile stretch of trail that runs through land used by the US Army, as well as visiting armies from around the world, to run practice drills. You have to be through the YTC before sundown, and there’s no water along the way. The day promised to be a scorcher.

Here we go!

Mike ran with us for a ways and also took a turn pushing the baby jogger. It was fun to have company on our strange adventure as we climbed from the Columbia River valley and up into the high desert. The landscape is such a stark contrast from our home in western Washington. It has a scorched earth appearance, with dried grasses and high hills, canyons carved into the reddish-brown basalt. It’s quite beautiful and calls to mind images of the wild west.

Still fresh and all smiles.
Roll on!
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

Eventually Mike turned around, and Seth and I continued on. Immersed in the high heat of the day, we took mini breaks anywhere we found even the slightest slip of shade to protect us from the sun’s relentless rays. We noticed two crows that seemed to be following us, squawking at us in a way that didn’t seem entirely friendly. The path wound through some cuts in the rock that rose high above the trail, and the crows would perch and call at us. These cuts in the rock were the best places to find shade, and at one point we decided to take a 10-minute dirt nap in a shade patch big enough for the both of us to be out of the sun. The crows landed, sounded a few deep clucks, and then we heard rockfall. The crows were knocking down large rocks from above, which seemed intended for us. Alarmed by the size of the rocks rolling down in our direction, we jumped up and took off. It was unbelievable to think, but it seemed very possible that the crows were trying to hit us with the rocks. We picked up our pace and finally left them behind. I’ve never known crows to be unkind, but this pair clearly didn’t want us there.

Beware the vengeful crows.

In the distance, we could see smoke billowing beyond the hills. As we drew closer, the sound of helicopter wings grew louder. On dirt roads that paralleled the trail, we saw Army vehicles filled with troops heading toward the smoke. Initially, we assumed that it was some sort of Army drill, but once we saw the helicopter dipping a bucket into a pond, we realized that they were fighting a wildfire. We paused to watch the chopper dip down, fill its bucket, then zoom off toward the smoke. It all felt a little surreal and a little unnerving.

Are we running into an army training exercise, or a wildfire?

Our water reserves were nearly tapped, and we had to make it to our water drop near the highway, on the other side of the YTC. We attempted a short cut through a tunnel on the original trail, but we soon understood why that way was closed. Apparently, there’s danger of parts of the ceiling falling down, so I’ll just say that one of us was not so keen on this attempted shortcut. The trail was overgrown and not ideal for pushing a baby jogger.

Um, I’m pretty sure we should take the detour…

Giving up, we went back to the detour, which was longer but easier going. Another trestle marks the end of the YTC, and we had hopes of crossing it despite warnings not to. Do you see a pattern emerging here? One look decided it, as there was no floor. While we might have scurried across on foot, there was no way we’d be bringing the baby jogger along for that ride.

The bottomless trellis.

The sun was setting, and we raced to reach our water drop and figure out a camp for the night. Water secured, we ran along an access road that paralleled I-90 looking for a hidden spot to pitch our tent.

Not a camp in sight.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

In the dusky light, we saw a little game trail that led up to a ledge above the road. It was, quite literally, the only option along this road, so we tried not to think too much about all that coyote scat on the game trail and made camp in a narrow gap between the thickets of sagebrush. Talk about wild bandit camping; we lay hidden just beyond the road, Interstate 90 roaring past mere yards away. Zapped by the hot run, we were able to catch some sleep despite our precarious little home for the night.

Perfect bandit campsite. Thanks for letting us crash, coyotes.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The next morning, we got an early start since we’d be on the access road for a few miles until the trestle detour linked back up with the trail. The dawn found us in a more pastoral landscape, in the agricultural valley surrounding Ellensburg. Near Thorp, I took a slight detour to the big fruit stand there. After a day and a half of dried and dehydrated foods, the prospect of fresh fruit was irresistible. I left with $30+ worth of apricots, plums, apples, and berries.

Back on the trail.
From dirt to gravel.
The landscape turns green.
Cows are typically curios, or terrified, by the sight of us.

The hot day called for a short respite on the banks of the Yakima River. The thing about traveling by foot speed is that you experience every slight change of landscape, and you physically feel the shift from high desert to green river valley. The day was still hot, but the landscape less harsh. We dozed off, lulled by the water tranquilly rippling past.

Cooling off…
…and cleaning up. Ahhh.
PC: Seth Wolpin
Perfect nap spot.

Back on our feet, we traced the upstream path of the Yakima River, eyeballing the water to determine if we could return one day with packrafts for a run/paddle adventure. The banks were largely high and steep, with few places to easily access the river.

Baby jogger rearing to go.
The baby jogger wrangler tends to lag behind the unencumbered runner.

As the second day drew to a close, we spent considerable time scouting out a campsite. We hoped to be out of sight from the trail but also needed a way to reach the river to collect water. Eventually, we found a nice spot under a pine tree and settled in for the night.

Home for the night.

The next morning, the trail took us through a tunnel and inched toward the Cascades.

Way ahead of schedule, we stopped at a picnic table to kill time with books, podcasts, naps, and snacks. We chatted with passersby, including two guys riding across the state on their bikes (and giving us ideas for routing the Olympic Peninsula section) and a couple with a sweet dog who lived on a ridge with a view of the Stewart Range that they bought dirt cheap because it was near a powerline. People are always curious when they see us with the baby jogger and no baby, and it has led to some nice conversations with strangers (as well as a stern scolding from a woman who thought we had a baby in the jogger and panicked when she saw us recklessly letting it careen down the trail.) We rolled into South Cle Elum later that afternoon, where Rich picked us up and hosted us for the night, offering showers, real food, and kind company. It was a delightful way to end this installment of our across-the-state baby jogger project.

Nicely done, baby.

Our Type of Fun: An Issy Alps 50k Trip Report

The Fun Scale, as defined by Kelly Cordes

Type I Fun – true fun, enjoyable while it’s happening.

Type II Fun – fun only in retrospect, hateful while it’s happening.

Type III Fun – not fun at all, not even in retrospect.

****************************************************

Introduction

It’s 5:10 a.m. My running tights are soaked through, and I haven’t even left the driveway. Torrential rains fall from the sky in theatrical fashion, and, in closing the trunk of my Outback, I send a bucket of pooled water cascading down onto my legs. I own two pairs of tights, and the other pair is packed for use later in the day. Sighing at this characteristically bonehead move, I hop into the car and head toward the Little Si Trailhead to meet Seth and begin our Issy Alps 50k adventure.

A series of interconnected paths has led to this moment. It was during Lap 18 of the 2016 Carkeek 12-Hour race that I first learned the concept of an adventure run. I ran this lap with Dan Sears, who I had just met, and we covered a lot of conversational ground in that short time. He explained that he was more interested in adventure runs with friends these days than in competing at races. They would choose an interesting location, devise a fun route, and just enjoy the experience together. My competitive racing life was still in its infancy–I was a mere 6 hours away from my first win–but the idea of adventure runs captured my imagination all the same. That chance course encounter also resulted in Dan introducing me to Rich White as a potential running partner. Rich would, in turn, introduce me to the Issy Alps Ultras and the Harvey Manning Peak Challenge. These challenges, not quite races but a bit more formal than an adventure run, spoke to me. I was drawn to the prospect of playing in the Cascades, covering a difficult route without the support of aid stations and helpful volunteers. The same factors led me to research the Ultra Pedestrian Wilderness Challenges, another great opportunity for adventure in my backyard. Yassine called my attention to the Angel’s to Alpine challenge in Oregon, which stoked my interest in this new (to me) type of ultra.

The Bob Graham Round was the first of this sort of endeavor that I’d heard of, and I was very keen to give it a try. I’d had the great pleasure of doing a recce on the first part of the course early last summer, further fueling my desire to embark on these sorts of adventures. During my BGR recce, I learned that, while most fell runners bring a pacer, navigator, and mule along on their attempts, it is possible to get an official finish as long as you have one other person with you to confirm that you summitted all 42 peaks on the route. Two runners had done so the year prior and had verified each other. The runner who told me this did so with a thinly-veiled tone of disdain in his voice; this wasn’t the proper way to do a Round. All I could think about was how I’d love to meet someone who would happily attempt the BGR with me, foregoing the standard crew and just vouching for each other.

Enter Dr. Wolpin.

In the midst of all these running and peak challenges swirling in the air, the universe also conspired to bring Seth Wolpin into my world. We’d had a brief written exchange in regards to my first story on the Boldly Went podcast, and I’d read some of his trip reports. Knowing of my curiosity about the HMPC, our mutual friend Angel Mathis offered to do some scouting with me and suggested that we invite Seth; “Do you know Seth?” she asked, coyly. “You two should know each other.” Two weeks later, Pablo Cabrera introduced us at the White River 50 finish line. In the correspondence that followed, Seth mentioned being a “Bob Graham geek.” He had my attention. In the following weeks, we bagged some incredible peaks, traversed stunning ridge lines, and bushwhacked to secret alpine lakes (some details of which I recount in this episode of the Boldly Went podcast.) This was the type of guy who’d be there by my side for a BGR attempt, just for fun.

Before long, he had my heart.

That was just over seven months ago, and we’ve enjoyed some pretty spectacular adventures in that time. Two weekends ago, we agreed to start adding more big pushes and micro-adventures into our life. Seth tossed out some ideas for the inaugural weekend: wandering the bluffs and canyons of eastern Washington; modifying Stuke Sowle’s Grand Tiger Traverse into a point-to-point route; or attempting the Issy Alps 50k. He tasked me with doing some research and making the final call. Initially, I was drawn toward bluff running in the east, after seeing a photo posted in the Seattle Mountain Running Group page and longing for sunshine. With the forecast calling for rain over there, though, it seemed to defeat the purpose of heading across the mountains. Better to wait for sun. The Grand Tiger Traverse seemed like a fun option; I ran my first trail half on Grand Ridge and my first post-broken fibula trail race on Tiger, so it would be fun to link up those places that were formative parts of my trail running life. I do doubles and triples on West Tiger 3 pretty regularly, and this would give me a chance to explore other parts of the park. As for the Issy Alps, I wasn’t sure about the prospect of dealing with snow on the climbs and rain all day. After reading lots of trip reports, studying maps, and considering all the options, I began composing an email to Seth. Much to my surprise, I was writing an argument in favor of doing the 50k. It would be more epic than the other adventures; I’d only summitted one of the four peaks; and it would give me the chance to use microspikes for the first time. Plus, I quite fancied the idea of sitting in a hot bath after hours spent in the cold and pouring rain, reflecting on the beauty of a tough challenge. Naturally, he agreed.

We debated whether to formally announce the attempt; we weren’t going to set any records and intended only to have fun. Around 9:00 p.m. on Friday, we decided to make it Facebook official. I joked that we would be going for the SKT, Soggiest Known Time, given the appalling weather forecast for torrential rain and a volatile windstorm. We received some nice well wishes, plus we would now have the eyes of local ultra runners upon us, adding motivation not to bail. We planned to meet at the Little Si Trailhead at 6:00 a.m. in hopes of being ready for a 7:00 a.m. start. After too little sleep, alarms buzzed early.

Peak One: Mailbox / Fun Scale: Type 1

I had never climbed Mailbox. Upon my first arrival in the Pacific Northwest, I learned a lot about the much beloved hiking routes in the area. Mailbox consistently came up as a must-do hike, but friends warned me that it could be pretty scary for someone with the extreme fear of heights that I had. I envisioned a rocky scramble with razor sharp edges, vertigo-inducing cliffs where one bad step would send you plummeting to your death. I imagined a mailbox teetering on a narrow precipice, verging on the abyss. You’re laughing because you know this is far from the reality, but it was the image my mind took away from those early descriptions. Later, as I began proactively confronting my fear of heights, I would avoid Mailbox due to its popularity; I had no use for crowds. I would see it towering above as I made my way to other trails in the area, always thinking that someday I’d get around to it but never feeling pressed to do so. Today, I was happy to have an excuse to finally see it for myself.

After a white-knuckled drive/swim through unbelievable rain, I rolled into the Little Si parking lot where Seth waited patiently. We transferred gear between vehicles then headed over to the Mailbox trailhead. There were very few cars at the lower lot, which is apparently a rarity these days. The ungodly weather probably facilitated that. We took a few minutes to load our packs–both of which Kathleen Egan graciously loaned us. I don’t know the exact model, but they were Ultraspire fastpacks, and they were incredible. Thanks, Kathleen! We opted, perhaps at my insistence, to go self-supported. Seth typically goes unsupported, but in this weather, I felt no shame in having a dry set of clothes and shoes waiting in the car. Plus, we’d be able to travel pretty light up Mailbox. Final preparations in order, we left behind our creature comforts and headed for the trail. It was 7:01 a.m.

The route calls for ascending and descending the Old Trail, which, I’d come to understand, is the best way to experience Mailbox. The WTA description of this route suggests that it’s a soul crushing, relentless climb. Reaching the turn off for the trail, we noted signage warning hikers of the many rescues performed on this route each year. I can see where all of this was coming from, but I soon realized that such descriptions and warnings are for the average hiker. Don’t get me wrong, Mailbox’s Old Trail is a formidable route; it just wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, and it wasn’t the greatest challenge I’d ever encountered. Things were pretty quiet as we zig-zagged up, switching back and forth. I’m a slow climber and, as my friend Jen says, I’m like a diesel truck: I take a while to get rolling. As such, Seth soon pulled ahead. All the same, I moved with intention, my favorite motto of RFP–relentless forward progress–cycling through my mind. It was too early to get frustrated at myself for not being able to keep up on the climbs.

Eventually, the trail littered with pine needles turned to one covered in a sheet of ice. It was cartoon-slick. In my attempts to avoid slipping, I’d end up getting off trail and more than once had to look for blazes to orient me. Eventually, I caught Seth, only because he’d stopped to put on his microspikes. I’d purchased mine months ago, but this was the first opportunity to try them out. I had no idea what to expect and certainly didn’t anticipate them being so incredibly fun to sport. I charged up the ice sheets with a new velocity. This was awesome! It was a wild sensation to move so sturdily over ground that just moments before threatened to break my neck. The past year has been full of similar new experiences. For the seasoned outdoor adventurer, this is just another mundane detail. For the newly-initiated, the first time you float on ice is a memorable moment. A stupid grin spread across my face.

Two tall figures made their way down the trail, both decked in heavy winter garb and toting large packs. One of them grumbled a greeting of sorts while the other remained silent. Catching Seth at the clearing near the final climb, he told me, “They didn’t summit. Too cold; too windy.” Perhaps that explained their mood. Well, not summitting wasn’t an option here, lest we sought defeat on the first peak. Here, without the shelter of the tree canopy, deeper snow covered the landscape. We worked our way over to the rocky steps leading up. Seth pointed out the wells formed around large rocks and cautioned me to be careful of my footfall to avoid post-holing. As we ascended, I moved in awe of the labor that went into laying the “steps” made of giant boulders along the route. The wind picked up, without the body of trees to break it. The view was the trade off. Despite the rainy, dreary day below, the Issy Alps stood on full display from this vantage point. Many “oh mys” escaped these lips.

How fortunate we are to live in this place. How fortunate we are that this is what Saturday looks like for us.

“There’s the summit,” I hear Seth say. Sure enough, that infamous mailbox came into view. Happily, there were no insane scrambles to reach it. There were a few trinkets inside, plus a pair of ski goggles. Seth thought I should take the goggles, but I’d forgotten to bring something to leave in the box and felt that it would be bad luck to take without giving. Instead, we took in the view and identified neighboring peaks. We were presumably the first people on the summit that day, and we had it entirely to ourselves. The wind continued to build, so we didn’t linger long.

After the easy-ish ascent, I figured the descent would be nothing. I wasn’t prepared for vertigo to smack me in the face, but it came on in a rush as I made my way down. It’s such an odd feeling; it’s the closest sensation I’ve had that replicates the feeling of being in a nightmare. It didn’t last long, but it was intense. Add to that the fierce wind and, now, snow, and conditions were a bit on the treacherous side. Suddenly, my confidence in the security of microspikes flagged, and I was more cautious in my steps. Each wind gust threatened to whisk away my lucky hat, so I held onto it with one hand, poles in the other, trying to keep sight of the path to follow. Seth bounded down the boulders like a damned mountain goat. I gingerly picked my way down like a pig on roller skates.

Soon, other hikers came into view, all looking a little stunned by the deteriorating weather conditions. The one exception was a cute little black Corgi-esque dog that bounded up the boulder steps with a little doggy smile on his face. I couldn’t help but smile back. Seth was out of sight at this time, and I took care to make sure I didn’t get off trail and continue forward at a junction he had pointed out earlier where hikers tend to get off route. Hitting the Old Trail, there was the benefit of tree cover, so the wind gusts and snow subsided. It was time to put the microspikes to a real test and start running down the trail. With a few “yeehaws!” I zoomed over the ice sheets, still amazed at the grip the spikes provide. Running soon became difficult, as the trail was now littered with hikers, mostly in large groups. Many were clearly training for bigger summits, decked out in their mountaineering boots, helmets, and giant packs. It was a bit of a circus, though, and lived up to the vision of Mailbox that had kept me away. It was surprising to see so many hikers on the Old Trail; my assumption was that most people took the new one instead. Several groups stopped me to ask how close they were to the summit, anxiety in their voices and eyes. I’d encourage them that they were close and that the view was worth it, but it also became a bit irritating to be stopped so frequently. Fortunately, Seth paused to pet every dog along the way, which helped me catch up to him. Admittedly, I silently took some pride in the thought that, to these people, summitting Mailbox would be a day’s work, while, to us, it was just the start of the day. That’s not to belittle their achievement by any means; I just took pleasure in knowing that I’d be pushing some of my limits today.

Hitting the gravel road, I ran ahead to get a start on my wardrobe change. We had done Mailbox in 2 hours and 25 minutes; this was one of only 2-3 times that I looked at my watch during our 50k attempt, as I wanted to just take in the experience and not worry about time. Going self-supported was a good call; my hardshell and rain pants were soaked through, which meant my under layers were soaked as well. My shoes and socks were sopping wet, too, and I felt confident that we easily had the SKT in the bag after only the first peak. We both swapped out all clothes. I’m fortunate to have a boyfriend who has stockpiles of gear, as he loaned me an extra hardshell since mine wouldn’t be dry anytime soon. My appearance was rather clown-like, with baggy rain pants and a too-big jacket, but I’ll take comfort over fashion any day. Those dry clothes felt so incredibly lovely. You have no idea how wonderful it is to be in dry clothes until you have been in soggy, squishy clothes for hours in the cold. We loaded up packs and munched on avocado sushi rolls and inari, which tasted sublime despite being at least a day old. We were relatively efficient during this gear swap, eating and changing and packing all at once. Never one to idle the engine, this felt like a time for an exception, and I blasted some heat for a couple minutes to chase off the chill. Our turnaround time was about 20 minutes; not lightning speed, but not bad either. This was our one and only resupply stop, so we made it count, then pressed on.

 

Interlude: Granite Lakes, Sitka Spruce, and CCC Trails / Fun Scale: Type 1

From the Mailbox trailhead, the route leads down the Middle Fork Road a short ways to the Granite Lakes trailhead. We had taken this trail on our first camping trip after having spent six weeks apart. It was early November, and the autumn foliage of the lower trail eventually gave way to a winter wonderland as we neared the lakes. It was absolutely magical to step from one season into another. Not finding a suitable spot to pitch a tent at the lakes, we came down below the snowline and found a gorgeous little spot on a new section of trail leading to a new trailhead. The snowline descended overnight, and giant pillows of snow plopped down onto the tent, waking us with a jolt at what sounded like someone lobbing snowballs at us.

It was nice to return to this little trail, which seems to be underused and underappreciated. Once an old logging road, now a narrower track that edges along a steep hillside with beautiful exposed rock walls along the way, Granite Lakes trail is a runnable, pleasant respite from the big climbs of the route. The trail becomes a sort of ledge that hugs those rock walls and steep, tree-lined drops, and we wondered if the original road had been blasted out. It seemed too perfectly sculpted to be natural, but the blasting would have taken quite some amount of labor. The answer remains a mystery to us. Reaching the junction, we turned down the new trail. We paused briefly to say hello to that great campsite, then bolted down the hill. It’s a buttery, cushy trail meant for cruising. It was pretty slick, though, and Seth had some spectacular wipe outs as we descended, sending us into fits of laughter. Reaching the new parking lot, he was stunned at its appearance. Only a year before, there was nothing of the sort here. Seth opined the days of having the Middle Fork to himself. We weighed the pros and cons of making the wild more accessible, but failed to arrive at a satisfying answer to that question.

Hitting the road, we crossed the bridge over the Middle Fork, where we saw rafters dropping catamarans into the river. Noting that it would be fun to return in warmer weather for a pack raft trip, we continued to the hidden trail on the other side, where we would drop down to meet the Sitka Spruce trail. Seth had pointed out this spot on numerous occasions before while driving past, as it can be easy to miss. Somehow, we lost sight of each other here, Seth going under the bridge to look at the river, me continuing onward. As the trail forked, I stopped, not seeing him in either direction. I let out some yips, but heard nothing in response. Choosing the wrong fork (naturally), I continued down a deer trail but sensed something was off. Backtracking, we reconnected, and then scouted for a good place to cross a feeder creek. Apparently, there once had been a great big log bridge, but someone had, for some unknown reason, recently sawed it away. No other options presented themselves, so into the water we went. Seth opted to go in with shoes on. For me, it was far too early to get my feet wet, so I chose to take off shoes and socks, and then roll up my tights above the knee. The creek was cold but not too wide, and we forded soon enough.

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Fording the feeder creek. PC Seth Wolpin.

The Sitka Spruce trail was my favorite section of the entire route. You move through a lush, fern-sprinkled landscape, punctuated by small creeks and lined with its namesake tree. Spring flowers were emerging, and the trail treated us to the colors of salmon berry flowers, skunk cabbage, and trilium. The trail is easy to follow but clearly does not see many hikers. It gives you the sense of stumbling into your own secret forest. Seth suggested that the greenery was the very definition of verdant. The trail soon climbs to a ridge, and the spruce needles cushion the path like a carpet. Words fail me in this moment to convey the wonder of this ridgeline. Traversing its spine, we felt completely immersed in a green world of our own, far from the hordes on Mailbox. All too soon, it delivers you onto the CCC road. Farewell for now, Sitka Spruce Trail. Seth took a moment to point out the trail to Green Mountain, which we would have to save for another day.

The CCC road is a flat gravel stretch that we should have been running. It was too early for walking; perhaps we had been lulled by the serenity of the Sitka Spruce into a walking slumber of sorts. I wanted to pick up the pace, but before the suggestion could leave my lips, Seth confessed that he was always tempted to walk flat sections like this. I suggested that we at least make good use of the time and eat our sandwiches while walking. That accomplished, and out of excuses, we chose a landmark tree stump in the distance and agreed to start running there. Having stiffened up a bit, it began more like a shuffle than a run, but finally our legs were moving at a respectable speed. As the CCC dipped downhill, my pace quickened, leaving Seth behind. It felt good to open up the legs and compensate for walking the flat section above. Not wanting to outpace him by too much, I slowed to a walk until Seth came into sight, and we stopped at the private sculpture garden he’d mentioned earlier. Not long after that, we reached the Teneriffe trailhead. Anticipating the climb to come, we had a quick snack, then were off to bag Peak 2.

Peak Two: Teneriffe / Fun Scale: Type 1

Teneriffe made me nervous, and I was anxious to get past it. My main goal with the entire trip was to be safely off Teneriffe before dark. I’d read a recent trip report that spoke of potentially fatal conditions on top, leading me to imagine a razor’s edge ridge covered in slick snow and ice, promising to send me plummeting to the beyond with one wrong step. Last summer, a hiker fell 100 feet off Teneriffe and wandered lost in the wild for several days. As I would learn soon enough, my imagination ran a bit wild in its expectations, but at the time, it loomed as a formidable challenge.

Several people were finishing up their hike for the day as we headed out. I soon pulled ahead of Seth, running what I could. The trail eventually forks; our route went right, up the Teneriffe Falls Trail (also known by the less culturally sensitive name, the Kamikaze Falls Trail.) We passed a few groups coming down from the falls, some warning of the slick rock ahead. We passed a couple with a cute little dog; they were the last humans we’d see the rest of the trip.

I miraculously kept the lead, pressing forward with a sense of urgency. I paused below the falls, which we could hear above. We debated getting water here, but decided to wait until reaching the falls proper. Mistake. At the foot of the impressive falls, which cascade in spectacular fashion from far above, we paused to admire its beauty and majesty. We also refilled our water bottles and were thoroughly drenched by the misty spray as a result.

From here, the route picks up a boot track, which grows steeper by the minute. Seth mentioned that upon reaching the ridge, we’d find a nice spot for taking a break. Sure enough, cresting the climb, we came to a nice little rocky outcropping. It offered a wind break and comfy seats to enjoy a snack and take in the view. We also used it as an opportunity to prepare for snowy conditions moving forward, adding layers and wrapping our feet in plastic bags. We ate vegan marshmallows and other junk food, sharing with the other the treats we had brought and chatting about this and that. As I finished up, Seth got a head start. I asked, “Where’s the trail?” not seeing anything obvious, but also not seeing many options. “That’s the trail,” he answered, pointing to something that looked more like an absolute vertical incline than a trail. I was afraid of that. Looking at my watch for the second time, I saw that we’d been out for nearly 9 1/2 hours. The thought took my breath away. We were 1/3 of the way through in terms of distance, but still had three summits to go. I’d never expected another 50k to take me longer than it took me to run my first Barkley Fall Classic, but the Issy Alps was going to change that, handily.

This is where the real fun began. Perhaps it’s thanks to my experiences on the Barkley course, but I absolutely love stupidly steep climbs. Maybe it’s because they level the playing field a bit; I’m a slow climber, so naturally I enjoy a climb where I’m not left behind. Coming up right behind Seth, who had a start on me, I joked, “You know it’s rough if I’m on your heels.” He laughed that this climb makes Mailbox look like child’s play; agreed. Again, it wasn’t necessarily the toughest climb I’ve done on a run, but it was a beast all the same, and I loved every inch of it. We soon reached snow, so out came the microspikes. Donning spikes on a steep incline is no easy feat! This pulling on and off of the spikes also slowed us down considerably throughout the adventure, playing a role in our markedly slow pace.

The snow grew deeper as we climbed, and we began to posthole. At times, it seemed best to step in the tracks of climbers who had come before us. At others, that seemed to be a fast track to postholing. We had to avoid tree wells and other similar hazards, and the slow going became a thicker grade of molasses. Despite the challenge, it was fun all the same. As the summit came into view, I saw that my fears had been unfounded. There was safe passage to the top, and only the uncautious would tempt the obvious cornice. We sat on a bit of exposed rock and admired the view while sharing a Twilight bar (the vegan’s answer to a Milky Way, and pretty much my favorite treat on the planet.) We could see where we’d been on Mailbox, and where we were heading, toward Si. We took a look at Green Mountain and its sketchy ridge that the HMPC asks you to traverse. Seth pointed out the different route options for connecting Green to Teneriffe, none of them ideal.

 

For the descent, we would make a sort of triangle and link up with the new trail, which was more like a road than trail. Seth dropped down first, and the pitch appeared incredibly steep from my perspective, making my legs wobble as he quickly disappeared down the slope. There were no other tracks here, and I found it tough to kick in steps. When Seth fell and slid wildly for a moment before catching himself with veggie belay, I froze. Seeing him careen out of control, even only for a moment, reignited those lingering fears. Sensing my hesitation, and seeing my difficulty in kicking steps into the snow, Seth made some for me, being the thoughtful guy that he is. It’s humbling to say, but I was grateful to have him there to do so. I find it difficult to admit when I need help, but humility won the day and I accepted his kindness.

The worst of it over, and none of it nearly as terrifying as I’d anticipated, the trail leveled off a bit, and we made our way down the new trail, heading toward the Talus Loop Trail, which would connect us to Si. The descent was marked by constant sliding, falling on butts, postholing, and lodged poles. The falls were harmless, but caught me off guard,  and I couldn’t help but laugh each time. The postholing was obnoxious more than anything. Under different conditions, this would be a section to bomb down with abandon. The snow made it an entirely different animal. True, our pace was faster than it had been for a while, but already the sun was setting, and we hadn’t even entirely descended from peak two.

 

Nature called at one point, and I sent Seth ahead while I answered. It seems we always separate at important junctures. Wearing so many layers makes even a pee break drag out interminably, and I had to rush to rejoin him. Coming to a T-intersection, I considered the options. Seth had mentioned a higher connector trail over to Mt. Si. My instinct told me that this was that trail, but that it was the higher route used for the HMPC. For the Issy Alps 50k, we needed to descend to the bottom of the mountain before turning over toward Si. Of course, I could have easily consulted the map on Gaia, which was on my phone, but stowed so inconveniently far away in my pack. I could have also listened to my gut, which said, “go left, no doubt about it.” For whatever reason, I did neither, and started up the trail to the right. In my head, it somehow made sense at the time. Fortunately, logic prevailed before too long. Not catching Seth after 5 minutes, I hauled out my phone to see that I had, in fact, chosen the wrong trail. With quickened steps, I retraced my path and flew down the mountain to find him waiting below. It was a good lesson in keeping the map handy and trusting your gut.

Snow marked much of the descent, and daylight waned quickly. Finally reaching solid ground, we removed our microspikes and debated whether to get out headlamps. We wanted to try to make it a bit further without them, but deny the falling darkness as we might, a few minutes later found us stopping yet again in order to pull out the lamps. I was relieved to have the toughest climbs behind us, and to be safely off Teneriffe before dark. As night fell, we met the Talus Loop Trail and began our traverse over to Mt. Si.

Peak Three: Mt. Si / Fun Scale: Type 1, mostly

It’s funny how what should be the easiest parts of a run can sometimes be the most challenging. Perhaps it was due to getting behind in calories–we hadn’t stopped to eat since sharing a candy bar on the summit of Teneriffe–but whatever the cause, my energy flagged on the Talus Loop Trail. As I am wont to do, I had completely minimized the remaining two climbs in my mind. We had bagged the toughest two peaks on the route and had covered more than half the mileage. I had previously climbed Mt. Si, long before my ultra days, and at a respectable pace. Little Si was for people who can’t do Mt. Si, I arrogantly told myself. This might be the beauty of the Issy Alps Ultras: they tempt you to underestimate the difficulty of the route. I was still in this mindset, but my body was gassed. Sometimes holding RFP as a personal motto gets me into trouble; I’m reluctant to stop and eat or rest or look at a map because I just want to go, go, go. I’m not the fastest runner by any stretch, so I make up for it by not taking breaks. Occasionally, it works to my advantage. Sometimes, it comes back to bite me. My sense is that this instance was an example of the latter.

A trail juncture along the way gave us pause. The left descended, while the right ascended. Seth felt sure we go down, but I was inclined to think we went up. Trusting his knowledge of the route, and our shared sense of having to climb all of the peaks essentially from ground zero, we went left. We would go a little ways then check Gaia to see if we’d chosen wisely. Despite the downhill grade, I was moving slowly, so we soon decided to stop for a snack break. The plan was to save the chocolate bars for summits, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and that last Twilight bar was devoured. We also took the opportunity to check our route decision. Good thing, because we were off course. Back up the hill we went. Fortunately, we discovered our mistake before getting too far down the trail, but the mistake did seem to zap some energy out of us, not from the added mileage but from a mental perspective. It was dark and getting cold. We were tired. Bonus miles were less welcome at this stage. Retracing our steps to the juncture, we happened upon several salamanders. It was wild to see them winding down the trail, their bright red skin shining in the artificial light.

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There’s a salamander in there, somewhere. PC Seth Wolpin

The sugar must not have kicked in, as I continued to lag behind after regaining the route. Seth pulled ahead and disappeared around winding bends, leaving me to focus on my slow pace. This is the exact moment when you don’t want to be in your head, that moment when you linger on your weaknesses and criticize yourself for not being stronger. I was angry with myself for being slow and feeling sluggish. I chided myself for not training hard enough. I cursed my concussion and slow recovery. The Fun Scale dipped dangerously close to Type 2.

Before things could completely spiral in my mind, we met the Mt. Si trail. Something about this landmark gave me a jolt, and, suddenly, I was renewed. I found my ultra legs and characteristically upbeat perspective, moving up the climb with a new sense of urgency and glee. Seth fell behind, which is quite the role reversal for an ascent. For once, I was the one who got to stop for a breather to let him catch up. This gave me a mental boost, and once again this adventure was firmly rooted in Type 1 fun. Casually leaning up against a log railing on a switchback, I smiled as Seth strolled over. “We need a real break,” he said. He was right; we’d been pushing through and breaking only long enough to split a Twilight bar. We stopped and raided his gourmet vegan cheese stash, spreading it on table water crackers. Doesn’t everyone carry table water crackers and gourmet vegan cheese on their outdoor adventures? We sure do, which is just another reason why I love adventuring with this guy. We have a shared vision for ultra snacking.

Cheese devoured, onward we went. Once again, I pulled ahead, admittedly loving it. Hey, maybe I can only climb faster than Seth Wolpin once he’s worn out and doesn’t get enough breaks, but you have to take the small victories when you can. It was also nice to be on a familiar trail, and I reflected back to my previous trip up Mt. Si. After reading Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, I was excited to try Mt. Si for myself and aspired to do a double or even a triple. At the time, I hadn’t yet run an ultra. I researched the FKTs and set a goal for myself. In recounting the story to Seth, I remembered my goal being something like 53 minutes and that I achieved it (but this was ultra brain talking and I’m pretty confident there’s no way I got up it in that time. Maybe it was just over an hour.) I also went on and on about how if I could do the Haystack, anyone could. I recalled being a little nervous scrambling up, but I’d done it, and now I could look up at the Haystack whenever I drove down I-90 and know that I had been up there. Imagine my surprise when, upon reaching what I thought was the summit of Mt. Si, Seth continued walking past the “haystack.” My haystack, it turns out, was just a little rocky outcropping, and the summit lay beyond it. This would then, technically speaking, be my first actual summit of Mt. Si. There was no other option but to laugh at myself.

It was dark, windy, cold, and rainy. You know, typical PNW early spring. We trotted over to the summit and looked down on North Bend, its lights twinkling through the mist below. It was wild to be atop one of the most popular mountains in the area with no one else around.  A few city sounds made their way within ear shot, but mostly the wind and rain provided the only audible backdrop. It struck me in that moment that climbing these popular routes in the middle of the night might just be the best way to experience them. We were, in all probability, the only humans out on the trails in that area at this time. There’s something quite cool about that, about knowing that in the morning, once again the masses will make pilgrimages to these hiking icons of the northwest, none of them even imagining that two crazy runners were up there in the wee hours of the morning, edging toward the summit one cheese cracker at a time. We then moved toward the Haystack. Despite the darkness, you could see its outline in the night and feel its presence looming above you. It was spooky and awe inspiring all at once. The true sublime. I felt like it was watching us, which unsettled me a bit. I definitely had not climbed this thing! Someday I’ll come back for it, but the route didn’t demand the scramble, so we pressed forward.

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Mount Si (maybe; or maybe Little Si). North Bend below. Note the laser beams/rain drops. PC Seth Wolpin.

Snow was patchier on Mt. Si, probably thanks in part to the many visitors it sees year round who tramp down a trail. We hadn’t needed the spikes for much of it, and it was a relief to be done with them at this point. The descent follows the Old Trail, and we had wisely taken note of the juncture on the way up so as not to miss it coming down. We hit the mark right on cue this time. While it has some steep and technical components, the Old Si trail has many runnable sections. Seth caught his own second wind and barreled down. The previous descents caught up with me, and my knees were wrecked at this point. Each footfall sent pain shooting through both knees, albeit the left knee is always more sensitive. It took some teeth gritting and will power to push on at a run. It’s rare that I experience pain on long runs and races, so this definitely registered. Fortunately, the thrill of being on Si in the middle of the night, coupled with the fun of the Old Trail and knowing we had one summit to go, helped propel me past the discomfort and cruise (so it seemed) to the finish. Despite the physical challenges, my heart was open and joyful, filled with gratitude to be capable of such an experience. I let out “Yip Yips!” and “Yeehaws” along the way.

Then we got to Little Si, and I promptly fell apart.

Peak Four: Little Si / Fun Scale: Type 2

Hubris is a bitch. My arrogance in minimizing the difficulty of Little Si–even the name suggests it’s a negligent climb!–bit me in the rear. On its own, of course, it isn’t a particularly challenging trail. At the end of an incredibly tough 50k, it’s another matter. A sign post at the trail juncture said that it was 1.4 miles to the summit. 1.4 miles. That’s nothing! That’s not even a warm up! But those 1.4 miles out to the summit were eternity personified. The rain continued to gain momentum as puddles formed along the trail. There was little talking at this stage; I had gone silent. In an incredibly rare move, I put my head down, determined to just grind out the final miles. It’s my nature to always find joy in running. Even in the most challenging situations on a course, I’m still smiling and grateful and happy. This was a new side to me; this was the me who wanted to just finish this thing. It wasn’t quite the soul crushing experience of the final 5 miles of Bryce 100 (the only other time I’ve felt this mentally crushed on a course) but it was close. Seth mentioned that Doug McKeever had sent us some words of encouragement. “I’ll read them to you on the summit,” he offered as a carrot. It was what I needed. There were no “Doug signs” on the course, but at least I would soon hear welcome sentiments of support.

The trail winds around the summit, so you essentially travel past it and around to the far side before climbing. Something about that made the experience all the more difficult, the trail teasing and taunting you as it slowly wraps around and around. As the climb began, the technical nature of the trail caught me off guard. Gnarly rocky and rooty sections marked the route. The rain, now pouring, sent rivulets cascading down, making the rocks all the more slippery. My legs wobbled wildly, and a fatigue set in that turned me into a walking zombie. Everything hurt. I couldn’t say that I was having fun. “One point four miles my ass!” I exclaimed. Onward I trudged, literally encapsulating the very definition of the word. After eons, we reached the summit. Modest celebrations ensued. Seth read Doug’s messages, which made me smile and provided a much needed lift. Of all the positive mottoes, my favorite was the one borrowed from the great Dr. Horton: “It doesn’t always get worse.” Indeed! Thanks, Doug! You have no idea how your kind words helped me keep moving forward.

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Still managed a smile! Little Si summit. PC Seth Wolpin.

Jelly legs and brain exhaustion made for a tricky descent. Despite being less than 2 miles from the trailhead, I needed a quick break to refuel. We munched a quick snack as Seth observed, “If we push, we can finish in under 20 hours.” How incredible that a sub-20 50k finish was something we’d have to work for! That goal, ridiculous as it may seem, spurred me on. The trip down felt treacherous. The snack had helped calm the wobbly legs, but my fatigue was nearly debilitating. It had recently become clear to me that I still have some fear of falling on the trail to overcome, fueled by the knowledge that a fall could be disastrous for someone recovering from a TBI. All of these factors compounded and led me to run down the slippery trail much slower than I would have liked. The clock tick-tocked away, the 20-hour mark nearing ever so quickly. As the trail flattened out a bit, I mustered every bit of energy left, but there was not much left to give. Head down, teeth gritted, I pushed as hard as humanly possible yet moved at a pathetic pace. No longer caring about dry feet, I plowed straight through giant puddles, shoes soaked.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

At the trail juncture, the sign post read 0.3 miles to the parking lot. We laughed maniacally, relieved that we had it in the bag, but that 0.3 miles dragged on and on, and soon it was no laughing matter. Pushing through everything, I managed a jog hobble, questioning out loud the accuracy of the trail signage, cursing whomever measured the distance. Just when I began to think that I was in some Twilight Zone time warp, the glow of streetlamps came into view, and the Little Si parking lot appeared. We ran over to Seth’s truck and tapped it with joy.

After nineteen hours and 54 minutes, we had successfully completed the Issy Alps 50k. It was 2:55 a.m.

Afterword

We laughed giddily on the drive over to the Mailbox trailhead to retrieve my car, heat blasting, chocolate bars procured, dry clothes enveloping us. I explained the Fun Scale to Seth and said that everything had been Type 1 fun for me, except for Little Si. Even then, it had already become fun with a little distance. All it took was being warm and dry and sufficiently sated with chocolate, and already I saw the grind of Little Si through rose tinted glasses. Pulling up to my car in the now empty lot, we saw an owl just beyond, picking over the dinner he’d just caught. We marveled as he sat and returned our gaze before flying off to munch on his late night repast.

In reflection, I’ve wondered if this race is tougher than the Barkley Fall Classic. They are roughly comparable in distance and elevation gain. My BFC podium finish still took 11 hours, but that pales in comparison to the nearly 20 hours spent on the Issy Alps course. Both have unique challenges that make them difficult, so perhaps it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Whatever way you slice it, both courses appeal to me because they don’t pamper you. They both ask so much of you and, as such, have so much to give in return. As the HURT 100 saying goes, “We wouldn’t want it to be easy.” You don’t stand to learn much from the easy path.

The experience solidified a few things for me. First, it confirmed my sense that adventure runs have an appeal that organized races lack. There are no volunteers there to baby you; no course markings; no cut offs to chase, or to push you. You might go for an FKT, but often it’s really about the finish. They take you off the beaten track and provide character building experiences. I find myself struggling now with a desire to abandon organized racing and turn my full attention toward wild runs. I’m torn in two directions, part of me craving the thrill of competition, part of me longing for the personal satisfaction gained from the less traveled, unmarked route. I want to have my cake and eat it, too. I want to do both, but I wonder if it’s possible to train competitively and embark on crazy adventures. I suspect that an answer will be found in the months to come.

The Issy Alps 50k also serves as further evidence that I have, in fact, found true love. True love for adventures on the trails, yes, but also in the person of one Seth Wolpin. Sometimes, I think back to something an old boyfriend said to me years ago: “If you want to go hiking, then you need to go make a friend.” In other words, it would never happen with him. The trails have called to me in various ways over the years, and, save my horse Whisper, I’ve never had a trusty trail partner. I’ve enjoyed solo runs through the mountains, and I’ve shared happy trail miles with friends, but part of me longed for a partner who shared a similar drive to test limits and push boundaries. Someone who would put in big miles, and love every minute of it. Someone who would rate spending 20 hours on trails in the cold, wind, and rain as Type 1 fun. Someone who would do a Round or adventure run or informal ultra simply because we could, and not for any public approval or recognition. Someone who would run with me for the sheer love of it, and for love of the exhaustion and aching and adrenaline and contentment that come wrapped up in big pushes. As much as I appreciate solo experiences and alone time on the trails, I can’t help but return to the revelation that resonated so strongly with Christopher McCandless at the end of his life: “Happiness only real when shared.” It gives me such great pleasure to be out on an adventure, and to look over and see this man by my side.

Perhaps, in the end, this is less of a trip report, and more of an open love letter to the incomparable Seth Wolpin. I raise a local IPA (which you have taught me to appreciate) to the incredible adventures we’ve shared thus far, and to all the wild and wonderful and possibly ill-advised journeys yet to come.

 

 

 

42: A Bob Graham Round Recce Report

“The Answer to the Great Question… Of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.” –Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My friend Jane introduced me to the Bob Graham Round over lunch this past January. An outdoor adventurer and lover of the Lake District, she of course knew of this under-the-radar fell running challenge in northwest England. As she described the traverse through the ruggedly sublime English mountains, she had my attention, and the BGR captured my imagination. She added that I should read up on Nicky Spinks, an incredible woman who has set multiple records, including being the second person (and first female) to complete two rounds in under 48 hours. And thus opened the rabbit hole.

Being me, I read everything I could find about the BGR, Nicky Spinks, and the other fell runners who have tested themselves in this gorgeous but challenging landscape. The Lake District trend of seeing how many peaks one could summit in 24 hours began in earnest during the Victorian period, and Bob Graham set the record in 1932 with his 42 summits. He was aged 42 at the time, so thus the number of peaks (had he been successful in his attempt the year prior, then a BGR would be 41 peaks.) In years since, others have attempted to complete a Bob Graham Round in under 24 hours. Just over 2,000 runners have done so, with a success rate of 1 in 3. There is no trail or marked course. The general parameters include starting at the Moot Hall in Keswick, and runners have the choice of going clockwise or anti-clockwise (most choose clockwise.) You must summit the specified peaks, although the approach and order is somewhat flexible in some places. To gain entry into the official BGR Club, you must have someone with you to verify you reached each summit and to record the time. The route ends back at Moot Hall, after 42 summits, 66 miles, 27,000 feet of vertical climb and descent, all in less than 24 hours.

The underground status of the Bob Graham Round attracted me. It’s not well known outside of the fell running community, and they propose to keep it that way (there’s particular concern about environmental damage to the landscape should too many runners attempt it.) There is something Barkley-esque about it, with its unforgiving weather, unrelenting climbs, and secret society. I knew that I had to do this for myself.

With a conference in London this June, I had the opportunity to extend my stay for a few days of vacation. There was no question what I would do with those days: I made a beeline for the Lake District. As the pastoral, sheep-dotted countryside gave way to rolling hills, and then jagged mountains, my excitement went through the roof. I kept gasping and saying out loud, “Get me out there!” Speeding a bit dangerously through the narrowly winding streets of Windermere and Grasmere–beautiful and historic landmarks that most tourists set as their destinations–I pressed on to Keswick, the heart of Bob Graham country, needing to lace up and get up into those fells. After a week of feeling a bit blah, those mountains lit a spark and had me brimming with anticipation. I arrived much later than hoped, so my options seemed a bit limited. I purchased a map at the hostel and asked the host for route suggestions. He recommended Cat Bells as having the best view and also suggested a run around the lake as another option, which would be about 10 miles. I ditched my luggage, laced up, and was off.

A run around the lake, named Derwent Water, seemed like a good option, since it was already 5:30 p.m. Not typically one to take photos, I couldn’t help myself and stopped several times. The contrast between the calm, clear water and the fells that rose abruptly from the shore was incredibly striking. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, and I felt light and easy on my feet. The preceding week, running in London, I’d felt tired and sluggish. Granted, I was less than two weeks out from a 100-miler and still recovering, but my city runs had felt lacking. Now, on the trail and moving through such a captivating landscape, there was a new spring in my step, and I felt like I could run all night. I ran through sheep folds and along rocky shoreline, over rooty and rocky technical trail and up steep, sandy banks, as the imposing peak of Skiddaw loomed in the backdrop.

About three quarters of the way around Derwent Water, I saw a sign post for Cat Bells (sign posts are rare, I learned.) The hostel host had said it was his favorite climb, and it was only a mile to the summit, so up I went. Along the way, I passed another runner, who looked equally eager to make the ascent. I briefly considered slowing down to chat, but my feet felt so good that I zipped up the mountain. Though steep in places, it’s not a terribly difficult climb, although the slick, loose rock made the footing a bit tricky. Photos and words will fail to do justice to the view from Cat Bells. It hovers over Derwent Water while also giving a view up and down the valley as the fells unfold before you. Keswick is a picturesque scattering of bright white buildings, and sail boats skimmed across the water. A ridge line opened to the south, and a higher peak beckoned. I couldn’t resist. I had a headlamp with me, so if night fell before I returned, all would not be lost. I zoomed down the back side of Cat Bells and began the climb to Hause Gate. This was more of a scramble, and I made a bad decision on my route choice, going up a narrow path with sharp angles and a steep drop off. Vertigo set in, and I froze for a moment, paralyzed by my fear of heights. It took some mental strength to talk myself into going forward, and after that, I was more patient in considering my approach and choosing the best line up.

The summit offered yet another stunning perspective, and I could see deeper into the mountains to the south and west. I was so moved, that I even took a very rare selfie. I lingered to take in the view, and the runner I had passed earlier caught up to me. He asked, “Are you training for something in particular?” To which I replied, “I’m always training for something!’ We chatted informally, but when I mentioned that I was here on a Bob Graham Round pilgrimage, everything changed. He began pointing out the peaks to me, focusing on the final 3 summits in Leg 5 and then tracing the route down past a farm and onto the road for the final sprint back into Keswick. He had crewed and paced runners on several attempts and knew the course well. We could have discussed it for hours, but it was getting cold and the sun was setting, so we made our way down the mountain. It was exhilarating to run down the slope, occasionally sliding on the slick rock but not worrying enough to slow down. When I hit the lake trail, I opened things up and tore into the forest. When I reached the road into Keswick, I backtracked, thinking I had missed the trail. I asked some locals, and they gave me directions into town on the road. One said, “It’s a 20 minute walk,” while the other added, after sizing me up, “so you’ll be there in five.” I laughed and sped off, with thoughts of a Bob Graham Round dancing in my head. Out on the road, I kicked things up a notch, imagining I was coming in for the final miles of my BGR. As I crossed the bridge and came into Keswick, I had no idea where the town square and Moot Hall were located, but something instinctual must have guided me there. I came tearing into the pedestrian zone and saw Moot Hall before me. With blinders on, I failed to notice the tourists who were probably staring at the odd sight of a woman flying into the square, legs covered in mud and blood (true Ellen fashion), with a stupid grin on her face. I touched Moot Hall and beamed. I knew in that instant that I would follow through and one day touch that wall again after completing my Bob Graham Round.

That night, I could scarcely sleep, and when I finally nodded off, it was with a tremendous grin and a sense of joy.

Not having slept well for a week (and the snoring French girl in the next bunk making it yet more difficult) I decided to sleep in a bit the next morning. Sipping coffee in the hostel cafe, I poured over the map making a plan for the day. Originally, I intended to try the Skiddaw Skyline Challenge: 7 summits, 15 miles, and 6500 feet of gain. This was a challenge set forth by another local hostel, and you received a free pint at their bar for completing it in under 7 hours. I’d been in contact with the hostel host about it and had planned to make a go of getting on their leader board. The runner from the day before saw me and said hello and asked about my plan. When I mentioned the Skyline Challenge, he said, “Well, you could run Leg 1 of Bob Graham instead.” The Skyline covered the three peaks of Leg 1, so I had thought I’d get a little taste of the BGR, but it hadn’t occurred to me to just focus on the BG route. The runner said he wanted to do it but his knee was hurting and he couldn’t run, but he was considering making a bad decision and going for it anyway. I replied, “If you decide to make a bad decision and want company, let me know. I don’t mind hiking instead of running.” He went off to have his breakfast, and I wasn’t surprised when, a few minutes later, he returned to say, “Let’s go for it.” I raced upstairs to grab my pack and shoes, thrilled to have the opportunity to go over the route, especially with someone who knew it well and could offer insights along the way.

As we left the hostel, we finally had a formal introduction. My new BGR mentor was named Pete. He competed in orienteering races and had just completed a mountain marathon event over the weekend (which is a type of orienteering event that spans two days.) He knew Leg 1 quite well, from pacing other runners and from relay events as well as his own recce runs. He’d done the full course in bits and pieces over the years, but he’d never made his own attempt. Still, he was very knowledgeable about the course and was clearly as obsessed with the BGR as me. Things were about the get pretty nerdy, as we would spend the next 7 hours talking about Bob Graham non-stop, and with complete and absolute enthusiasm.

There are no signs or markings showing the way to the fells, so even getting out of town took a little navigation and map reading. We power hiked up a path to the car park near Latrigg, which was already full of day hikers. The heavy fog of early morning was starting to lift, but the summit of our first peak, Skiddaw, was still out of sight. We could see people making their way up to Little Man along a stone path. It looked as if that was the route to go, but Pete indicated a path leading around it, saying I was welcome to add an extra summit, but he wouldn’t be joining me. We overtook several groups on our way up, and the weather grew colder and windier. The hikers had on multiple layers, pants, hats, gloves, etc. We wore running shorts and shirts. It didn’t take long to reach the summit of Skiddaw, and we touched the trig point that marked the top, smiling enormous grins. The sun had burned off the fog, and the entire Lake District was on full view below. At 3,054 feet, Skiddaw is the fourth tallest peak in the Lake District, and its presence over Keswick is commanding. Pete chatted up some hikers and a runner and asked them to take a photo of us behind a windbreak near the summit. I was beginning to get cold, so we discussed our route down. We would jog down the north side until the rocky section ended, then cut right and down into the valley. We could see a line through the grass leading to Great Calva, and Pete was distressed by this. “That’s from Bob Graham runners. I’ve never seen a clear path like that before. It means a lot of people are out here making attempts or doing a recce.” He couldn’t get over how clear the path was, and he was disappointed because it made things too easy. Part of the challenge of the BGR is finding your way and choosing a good line. There’s also the fear of too many people being out there tearing up the terrain. As we would soon find out, just because there was a path didn’t mean that was the best route.

We took it easy coming down the rocks, but as we turned east, we cut loose and ran. The terrain was unlike anything I had run on before. We were in tall grasses, and the ground was spongey. It wasn’t muddy, but it was wet and soft and absorbed the shock of hitting the ground to the point that it felt like you were bouncing. This would end up being my favorite part of the run. We flew down the side of the mountain, and I couldn’t help but let out a few yips and yeehaws. In the valley, we had the choice to go left down a small slope or continue forward along the path that other BGers had made. Pete had always gone left, but we figured we would try this straight path. The decision was bad and good. Bad, because it landed us in a bog. Good, because we learned a lesson: don’t blindly follow the path of others.

The thing about bogs, which I had learned years ago in Ireland, is that they look like solid ground. I’ll never forget the sight of an old friend and his pony sinking down several feet in a Connemara bog. The trail boss had carefully picked his way through the bog, being able to spot the solid ground, but Richard was having trouble managing his mount, and they sunk as a result. It reminded me of watching Artex disappear into the Swamps of Sadness in The Neverending Story, my favorite traumatic moment of childhood. Pete and I found ourselves in Candleseaves Bog. He went in first, nearly up to his waist. I tried to go around and went in about as deep. My shoes were caught in the muck, and I feared pulling out too quickly and leaving them lost forever in that boggy, soggy, squitchy world. Working my way out, I emerged covered in peaty gunk and soaked through. I couldn’t help but laugh and was just glad to still be wearing both shoes. We looked back and took note of the better approach. I filed that away for the future. During an actual BGR, I would be running this section at night, so it would be particularly important to take a good line here. Pete pointed out some white flowers, stating, “Those white flowers indicate a bog.” Again, very helpful knowledge that I filed away. We delicately picked our way across the valley, hoping for firmer ground as we started the ascent up Great Calva. It was a bit boggy, but we managed to avoid dramatic dips.

The climb up Great Calva was relatively straightforward. It was essentially hands on knees, one foot in front of the other climbing without having to think too much about our line. At the summit, there’s a large cairn, which we climbed onto and tapped the top. I added a small stone to the stack, leaving my own little mark on the mountain. From the summit, we could see clear over into Scotland, and to the east, wide open wilderness. Pete noted that hikers stick to the areas near Skiddaw, and back here you could go all day and not see another person. We couldn’t see anyone from our vantage point and shared the mountain with only sheep. It was surprising to see a fence up here. It struck me as odd to fence off a mountain, but sheep played a significant role here culturally and historically, so I suppose the farmers didn’t want their herds mixing on the mountains.

The descent off Great Calva was the most difficult thing we encountered. We could see where other BGers had descended before us and started by following their trail and heading for the small “Christmas trees,” as they were a natural visual cue for the route. We could run at first, but the trail soon became a deep, narrow, rocky groove. The heather was overgrown on either side and obstructed your view of the “trail.” This became tricky because the trail would have a steep drop that you couldn’t see, so you would take a rough step down with a jolt. My paced continued to slow as the terrain grew more difficult. I finally hopped out of the groove and into the heather. It scratched my legs to hell and still hid large rocks, but it felt safer than the gnarly trail. At least I could jog a bit. When we reached the bottom, I said, “I know in a Round attempt I would have to run down this, but no sense in injuring myself today.” He agreed.

We next had to ford the River Caldew, which wasn’t terribly difficult. We waded through water up to the hem of our shorts, but at least it rinsed off the peat from the bog. The current wasn’t too brisk but definitely took some care in crossing. On the other side, we made our way up the side of the next mountain and stopped about halfway up in a sunny spot to dry off and have a little lunch. It was kind of incredible to me. You couldn’t see another sign of human life in any direction (save for the sheep). The shadows of clouds danced across the fells and the sun warmed me. You could see the fells rising majestically up out of the river valley, their grassy slopes looking deceptively tame from a distance. I’ve never enjoyed a better lunch spot.

lunch view

Perfect lunch spot, River Caldew below.

Despite the picturesque view, we didn’t linger and soon began our final big ascent up Blencathra. To the north east we spotted a small group of climbers on what I believe was Atkinson Peak. We could have summited there and walked the ridge line over to Blencathra, but, as Pete said, “That would be too easy, and not an adventure.” Instead, we traversed along the side of the mountain, heading southeast and keeping Blencathra in our sights. While Skiddaw is the tallest of the three peaks, Blencathra is the most beloved in this area; it’s firmly embedded in the history and culture of the northern Lakes. It certainly had a character all its own, which I could feel while climbing it. A current exhibit at the local museum in Keswick was devoted to displaying its prominence in the lives of the people who live here, and I could appreciate their connection to it.

On the summit, instead of a trig point or cairn, there was a circular survey marker, which we took turns jumping into as a way of marking our summit. From there, we assessed the three options for the descent into the village of Threlkeld. Facing east and looking to the right, we first identified what’s known as the “Parachute Route.” This is a stupidly steep scree field that takes you down Gategill Fell. A runner would need to be completely confident in their ability to navigate this treacherous route. You would be running it in the dark as well, making it all the more challenging. Each year, the Keswick Rescue Team swoops in to rescue the hikers who accidentally find themselves on this route and realize that they’re in over their heads. There have also been a number of fatalities on the various descents of Blencathra, so it’s nothing to fool around with. The next route was directly in front of us, down Hall’s Fell. This route was also intimidating. It was a narrow line with steep drops on both sides and steep pitches the entire way. This seems to be the typical BG route, but it still comes with its dangers. To the left was the third option, a slightly less dangerous route down Doddick Fell. This went a bit to the north and out of the way, but some runners feel it’s the fastest option because it’s more runnable, even if it’s a longer route. Pete and I discussed which route we would take on a BG attempt. I wasn’t sure that I would have the guts for the Parachute Route, especially because you’d be running it in the dark. It seemed too risky, and from my research, it didn’t seem to save one all that much time on the descent anyway. I decided the Hall’s Fell route would likely be my choice, and Pete soon agreed. Doddick didn’t look that much easier from our vantage point, so it seemed to make sense to take the most direct line. It would still be challenging doing this in the dark, and you’d want to take care, but even with my fear of heights, it seemed manageable. From the summit, we could also catch a glimpse of the first part of Leg 2, and we discussed aspects of that route, lingering on the summit, reluctant to end the adventure.

Sadly, we weren’t able to test out any of the three descent options, because Pete had to get back to catch a train. We made our way to the southwest and down Blease Fell, heading toward Keswick. I had a little pang of regret for not completing the last descent of the BG route, but I was fortunate to have had the experience that I did. The descent down Blease Fell wasn’t as difficult as the BG routes, but it was steep all the same and took some careful thought about choosing a good line. We entered a field of ferns. It was wild to encounter a sea of ferns out in the open, as we typically see them in the forest of the PNW. We had seen some signage upon leaving Keswick that morning about the footpath along the River Greta being inaccessible due to flooding, so we tried to find an alternate route. When we reached a signpost that pointed to Kewick in one direction and Threlkeld in the opposite, I motioned toward a trail to the west that seemed right. Pete didn’t believe the direction was correct, to the point that he tested the wooden signposts to see if someone had swapped them. My sense of direction told me that the signs were correct, as did Pete’s compass and my map. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe this and said we should head east. Reaching the river valley, it was clear that this wasn’t the right direction. I’m not sure what happened, given Pete’s strong orienteering background. We retraced our steps and took the path I had suggested. This led us around the back of Latrigg and back to the car park where we had begun earlier that morning. From there, it was back down the road and into Keswick.

All told, we covered 17.5 miles and 5,900′ of elevation gain in a little over six hours.

BGR route map

BGR Leg 1 route map.

Of course, on an actual BGR, you would want to do this in 4 hours or less. Given that we ran very little, stopped for lunch, took in views at summits, and paused to discuss strategy, I feel confident that I could run this leg in under 4 hours in an actual BGR attempt. It’s not the easiest leg, and it’s run at night, but having done my own recce with an experienced fell runner, I’m left with some confidence. The experience also instilled in me a very strong appreciation for the value of a recce with experienced BGers. If I want to make a serious attempt at a Round–and I do–then it is clear to me now that I will first need to go back to recce the entire route before doing so. This will entail more time and money, both of which are in short supply for me, but the Bob Graham Round is a personal dream, and it’s one that I am committed to making a reality. I’ve made good contacts in the fell running community, even if we didn’t meet in person, and they have pointed me toward great resources to aid in planning while also offering to support me. There are also people like Pete, and Pete himself, who are happy to get out and recce a leg or two. It will be an adventure that spans some time , but it’s off to an incredible start, and I look forward to the journey that leads me round 42 fells.

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