Peaks 19 and 20: Thomas Mountain and Thorp Mountain

Elevation: 5269’ (Thomas) and 5854’ (Thorp)

Total Mileage: 32.36 miles

Total Elevation Gain: +10,169’

Date: 6 July 2019

My friend Rich maintains that his Needles 50k is “more fun than laughing.” Crossing the finish line for the first time in 2018, I understood exactly what he meant. It’s a tough, tough course, but it’s so gorgeous, and the vibe is completely chill and goofy and full of good mirth. It’s easily one of my favorite race experiences, and this year proved no different.

Somehow, I convinced my friend Jen that running two consecutive, challenging 50ks was a good idea. We pulled into the large horse pasture at the Silver Ridge Ranch, which serves as race headquarters. I pitched a tent and fell asleep to the sound of the stream rippling by.

There are no bibs, no chips, no numbers at Needles. After a course briefing, Rich and Adam sent us out along the airstrip and into the woods. The trails start off friendly enough, but things get steep real quick. That first climb never ceases to crack me up. It’s just relentless to the point of absurdity. Fortunately, you have time to take in the mountain views that unfold around you on the ascent, with Cle Elum Lake deep blue below.

A gorgeous day dawns over Cle Elum Lake.
Hard-earned views of Cle Elum Lake.

Intent of tagging all peaks within striking distance that summer, we briefly detoured at Thomas Mountain. The summit itself is rather underwhelming, with no real views given the surrounding trees. Seeing a pile of rocks, I stepped on top and guessed that was the highest point, which we paused to confirm on the map. I didn’t climb all those switchbacks just to have Rich deduct another poo poo point from my 40 peaks goal.

We’ll call this rock pile the summit (but will confirm on the map!)
Photo credit: Jen Schneider

All that climbing pays off with a long, fun descent. We linked up with Brad, who was also doing a milestone challenge: 50 ultras for 50 years. If I remember correctly, Needles was #25, so he and I were both halfway to our goals. I think he had to drive to Oregon or something equally insane to run another one the following morning. Having run Needles, I knew he was gonna be hurting tomorrow, but Brad is a beast, and he knocked out another ultra the next day all the same.

One of my favorite spots on the course, a catwalk where you can look right and see the Stewart Range…
…or look left into the heart of the Central Cascades Range.

All good descents must come to an end, and after hitting the first of two aid stations, back up we went. We had added another runner to our group, Colleen, who was stoked to be out there and excited to run Cascade. She brought a nice energy to the gang, and we all chatted and laughed as we climbed.

My terrible posture speaks to how much the climbing wears you out on this course.
Photo credit: Jen Schneider
The wildflowers were on point!

The wildflowers were on full display along this section. This would be true for much of the summer; it must have been a good weather year for wildflowers, as they seemed to stay in bloom much longer and later than years past. As we approached Thorp, I stopped to get some water from the spring there, which Adam had kindly marked for us.

Runners switchbacking up Thorp Mountain.
Pausing for a view of Kachess Lake as we snake up Thorp.

We zig zagged up Thorp, and I convinced Jen and Colleen to follow me past the lookout and over to the Thorp Mountain Crapper. The year before, I had won the Inaugural Thorp Mountain Crapper Selfie Contest, and I wanted to defend my title. Having known Colleen but for a few hours, we dropped trouser and asked her to snap a pic that I’d schemed up. I will leave that to your imagination, but you can rest assured that our moons over the mountains won, handily.

View of the Stewart Range from the Thorp Mountain summit.
Jen taking the Thorp Mountain Rorschach test.

After taking a Rorschach test at the summit (Adam’s way of testing whether we’d completed the course), it was on to the Cardiac Needles. The Needles get their name from the shape of their profile on an elevation chart: sharp ups and downs. I always forget how many there are (5 before French Cabin, then 2 after? Something like that). There’s always more than you remembered, though. They just punch you in the gut when you’re already tired, but, my goodness, it’s just so pretty there you almost don’t mind. Last year, there had been lots of snow through here, so it was nice to have an easier time as far as footing went.

We rolled into the aid station at French Cabin, chatted for a few minutes, then pressed on to finish up those Needles and begin the long descent. Needles dispatched, we were on to a really fun section that winds down to Silver Creek. This part of the course is just plain fun. You can let gravity do the heavy lifting as you plow down, down, down. There are creeks to run through and meadows to admire, then switchbacks that eventually bottom out and return you to the flat trails of the valley.

A break in the trees meant the airstrip was just ahead. We picked up speed for a strong finish, cruising down the gravel and toward Ned’s glorious tubular body dancing in the wind. Needles records your finish time by the minute, so we technically tied as we crossed the finish line. I went in for a big hug with Ned, who always makes me smile.

Finish line hugs with my main squeeze, Ned Needleman.
Photo credit: Jen Schneider

We spent the afternoon chatting with others, delighting in the homemade feast that Adam prepared and getting our money’s worth of Dru Bru from the keg. Needles is one of those races that you don’t want to end, and we lingered socially and cheered in runners as the light faded. Writing this, I smile at the memory of that good company and good cheer. This is what I love about the running community here: the long summer day spent moving yourself through stunning landscapes by foot power; the laughter shared among strangers in a shared setting; the way food and beer tastes after a tough effort; and sleeping the sleep of the exhausted and content.

Thanks to Adam and Rich for putting together this awesome event!