Loowit Trail

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The Loowit Trail is one of those bucket list routes.  28 miles long, it circumnavigates Mount St. Helens, traversing miles of lava boulders, wide, rolling lupine meadows, and gushing rivers of glacier runoff at the bottom of steep and shifting sand gullies. Always in sight of the volcano that not so long ago blew itself in two, it’s an otherworldly scene – beautiful at times, but in that kind of stark and barren way that brings to mind the landscape of the moon.

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It was hot when Andy and I set out to run this route – 100 degrees hot.  We’d read ample warnings about dried up creeks and an overall dearth of water, especially this year with the drought-like conditions and prematurely high temperatures we’ve been experiencing in the Northwest.  So, we carried 2 liters of water each and refilled our hydration packs multiple times using our Sawyer mini to filter silty river water.   But despite drinking around 6 liters of water and taking S Caps for electrolytes, I still found myself almost constantly thirsty and so fatigued by the heat that I struggled to run, even on the flat stretches where the trail was even and entirely runnable.  Running in the heat is, I believe, as challenging as running at elevation.

But the route is also deceptively climby, with around 7,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain and loss.  This is largely due to the multiple deep sand gullies the trail drops into and then climbs back out of.  We had both read that the trail might be a bit challenging in spots, due to washouts on slopes that descend into these gullies, but neither of us anticipated the extent of this.  In places, the narrow and exposed trail is only a 3 inch wide footprint that cuts across entirely unstable sand cliffs, with boulders above just waiting to come loose, bringing down entire slopes with them.  These sections made me incredibly anxious, and although we escaped unscathed, I really do feel it’s safe to say that there’s a disaster waiting to happen on this trail.

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But there were also stunning fields of blooming lupines, which I thought at the time were fields of lavender due to their smell.  If you have any experience with scented soap products or perfumes, you know what lavender smells like.  Some people love it, but I’m one of those who don’t.  In fact, I find it kind of horrifying.  And unmistakable.  And so I insisted, long after learning otherwise, that these flowers couldn’t possibly be lupines. Anyway, they were strikingly beautiful, especially in contrast with the desert tones of the trail and the scarlet blooms of Indian Paintbrush.

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We ran the Loowit Trail counterclockwise, beginning and ending at June Lake.  Near both the start and finish, the route crosses boulder fields where the trail itself disappears, replaced by cairns and tall white poles that mark the way.  We found these sections to be much slower going than anticipated, probably because we’re not really skilled and speedy boulder-hoppers.  But also, Andy had rolled his ankle a few weeks prior and needed to be careful not to re-injure himself, so we were ultra-conservative.  In the end, the whole thing took us a whopping 13 hours, including multiple longish stops to filter water, and a few sit-downs to try to cool down from the excessive heat of the day.  We flipped our headlamps on for the last mile of the June Lake trail back to our car, and after recovery stop at Denny’s on the way home, made it back to Issaquah around 2 in the morning.  Needless to say, we did almost nothing the next day.

Gold Creek – Joe Lake – PCT Loop: Alpine Lakes Wilderness Bushwack

Inspired by a bit of trail beta from the Seattle Mountain Running Group, I set out on Monday for a bit of a solo adventure in the Snoqualmie Pass area.  My plan was to string together Gold Creek, Joe Lake, and the PCT in what turned out to be 40 km loop with about 1500 meters of elevation gain.   Even though I knew a section of the route was on unmaintained or no trail, I didn’t think it would be all that bad, and I certainly didn’t think it would take more than 5-6 hours to complete. Boy was I ever wrong. In this case, “unmaintained trail” meant bring a machete, and “off-trail” meant crawling up a 50 degree slope through almost impenetrable alder & prickly brambles.  Honestly, I saw a couple of beautiful, remote alpine lakes, and a section of the Snoqualmie Pass area where few folks go, but all I could think of, scrapping my way through that jungle was: what the hell am I doing here, and exactly when did I completely lose my mind?

The loop started with a 7km road run.  I parked my car at the PCT TH by the I-90 and ran through the Snoqualmie ski resort area to Gold Creek Pond, which is basically just a water-filled gravel pit & nature observance area for kids & folks who can’t walk far.  From there, I ran the Gold Creek Trail north, following a gravel road for a mile or so before getting on some fun, rolling single-track.  About a mile past the wilderness area boundary, the trail crosses a creek – Gold Creek, I’m assuming.  The water was only ankle deep and it was hot out, so I left my shoes on and waded across.  So far, so good.

By the time I reached the junction for Alaska Lake, I’d run a bit more than 15 kilometers. This junction wasn’t marked, so I got out the map & pondered a bit before taking the right-hand fork for Joe Lake.  From here onward, the trail is unmaintained, and although I’d read this beforehand, I wasn’t fully prepared for what that would actually mean.  Nettles and other weeds taller than I covered the path, which climbed and descended sometimes sharply.  I couldn’t see the many rocks and logs underfoot, nor was it always simple to figure out which way to go, which is why it took me over an hour to cover just a mile or so like this.  I desperately wanted a machete.  Then, after crossing a rock slide, I found myself out of the scrub and back in the woods  But the “trail” didn’t get any easier. For a few hundred meters, I climbed almost straight up.  (Not exaggerating).  What “path” there was, was just loose dirt that wouldn’t support anyone’s weight, so I clung to alder, tree roots, the occasional rock, and basically crawled/climbed this section.  I felt pretty exposed here and definitely uneasy about the consequences of falling, plus the sky had turned grey with mid-afternoon thunderheads.  But the thought of turning back & trying to find my way back down and out was just too daunting.  So I kept going.   Finally, just before Joe Lake, I reached a beautiful waterfall and the trail flattened out.

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Joe Lake (and a pond that I’m calling “little Joe Lake”) was surrounded by mud, alpine flowers, and a ton of fresh bear scat.  The trail disappeared here, so I followed fresh bear tracks around the east side of the lake, squinting up the lower slopes of Huckleberry Mountain for a line to the PCT.  I probably didn’t pick the best route, as I wound up pulling myself up a very steep slope through thick slide alder and prickly brambles.  By this point, I’d stopped caring about the accumulating scratches on my arms and legs, and just wanted to make it safely up the slope to something, anything stable.  I was so happy to finally get to the beautifully maintained PCT.  Truly, I almost cried.  Finally a runnable trail.

Little Joe Lake & Huckleberry Mtn.

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Looking down at Joe Lake from the lower slopes of Huckleberry Mtn.11402956_10152895501081674_6013350993870332484_nFrom the PCT, the remaining 14 kilometers or so were pretty straightforward.  From the trail, I could see down to Alaska and Joe Lakes, and then Ridge Lake, before arriving at the famous views of the Kendall Katwalk.  Descending 800 meters or so after all of that was a bit tough, and pretty much all I could think about was pizza – and my 300 fresh mosquito bites.  I have to think that overall, this nitwit day was decent training for Wonderland, and sure, the scenery was beautiful.  But with so many great, maintained trails in the area, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone waste a day on this route – at least not on purpose.

Views from the PCT

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Hoh River Trail Fastpack

The closer we get to fast-packing the Wonderland Trail, the more daunting the plan seems to become.  This weekend’s overnight run in Olympic National Park was a fun and much needed trial – of new gear, going light, and endurance.  And as usual, my concluding thoughts and feelings are mixed.  On the one hand, we’re building fitness incrementally in a measured & logical way.  On the other, 100 miles and 40,000 feet of elevation gain over three days, with the added thrashing of two nights of “sleeping” on the hard ground, still seems unfathomable.  Both Andy and I felt stronger than we expected over 60 kilometers with 10-15 pound packs this weekend.  But that’s still a far cry from where we’re headed, and I can’t help wondering if I’m going to be strong enough to stay the course.  But I suppose if the plan were easy, if we knew without a doubt that we could pull it off, the whole thing would seem that much less compelling.  After all, you can very well enjoy the best of the Wonderland Trail without trying to circumnavigate Mt. Rainier in three days.

As usual, we got a bit of a late start, heading west from Issaquah around 8 p.m. on Friday night & pulling into the Olympic National Park campground at Kalaloch Beach just before midnight.  Unlike most of the rocky, barnacle covered Washington coastline, Kalaloch is a long beach of endless sun-bleached sand that seems to grow by miles when the tide is out.  It’s a beautiful place that I’m especially fond of, having spent a few summer vacations there as a kid with my family.

Kalaloch BeachIMG_1366 IMG_1367 After breakfast on the beach, we managed to drag ourselves away & were finally on-trail by the crack of noon.  The Hoh River Trail is 17.5 miles from the TH to Glacier Meadows and we’d planned to do about 2/3 of the out-and-back on day 1.  As its name suggests, the route follows the Hoh River most of the way, and is mostly flat until about 14 miles in.  We ran 10.5 miles with all of our gear in our new Six Moons Designs packs to the Lewis Meadows campsite, where we pitched our tent by the river.  Then, leaving sleeping bags and some extra clothing behind, we continued on for another 14 miles – 7 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain up to Glacier Meadows and back again.

The Hoh Rainforest is typical of temperate rainforests, with its dense fern covered forest beds and giant mossy old growth Cedars.  Nevertheless, it was drier and less of a drenched jungle than I expected.  Anticipating mud, mist, and penetrating dampness akin to the what I’m familiar with in Pacific Rim National Park further north on the west coast of Vancouver Island – I was pleasantly surprised.  And dry.

Andy on the Hoh River Trail image7 image1 Me with a Six Moons Flight 30 fast-pack.  (Photo by Andrew Winstanley)11535897_10152993168670872_716409730896223810_nimage3 (1) Filtering water with our new Sawyer Miniimage2 (1) Just before Glacier Meadows, the trail is washed out.  Here’s Andy using a rope to lower himself: image4-3   image3-2 Views through the treesimage9 A handful of gear upgrades made this running/backpacking thing feasible.  First, we used the Six Moons Designs Flight 30 and Flight 40 ultralight packs.  Both of the packs ride better than anything we’ve run with, minimizing bounce and friction as a result of the supportive yet flexible strip of padding that structures the part of the pack that touches your back, and because of the minimal yet comprehensive strapping system that allows you to compress or expand the pack to the size of its load.  At the end of our first day, having run 40 kilometers with these things strapped to our backs, we were in solid agreement that the packs were about as close to perfect as anything we’d seen.

Things looked a little bit different by the end of Day 2.  The shoulder straps on my Flight 30 pack have a small horizontally placed piece of something that seems like it might be metal, and first thing in the morning when I put the pack on, I noticed that these “metal” pieces were protruding through the exterior strap material and sticking into my skin.  As the day went on, this “irritation” grew to become painful, and when I examined my skin that night, I found little scabs forming where the wire had been poking me.  I think I can probably remove whatever this offending material is, but it’s a touch annoying to have to do this at all.

The second problem with the Flight 30 pack is that because the straps are a bit too wide and unpadded, by Day 2, the bone on the front of my shoulders felt as if it were being punched whenever I ran.  (I think a bit of foam on the underside of the straps will solve this.) Last but not least, the whole pack sits just a tad low on my torso, which means that the bottom rubs up and down on the small of my back, where I now have a little abrasion as a result.  I think I can rig some modifications to resolve these little flaws, but I’m pretty happy we discovered them before committing to three whole days.

Andy’s Flight 40 pack worked out a bit better than my Flight 30.  It has a stiffer, broader waist belt and a set of straps missing from the Flight 30 which pull the body of the pack forward toward your shoulders.  Both of these features help situate the pack a bit higher on your torso, as well as reducing the bouncing motion that made my shoulders feel like punching bags.  Unfortunately, you probably need to be a guy to use the Flight 40 for running, as the waist belt doesn’t really work for either a narrow waist or wider hips – or anyway, not for mine.

A Sawyer Mini water filter and the Double Rainbow Tarp-tent also helped us cut both space and weight.  The Sawyer Mini is a cute, tiny and easy to use filter that attaches to a little water bladder.  All you have to do is fill the bladder with water and squeeze.  The Double Rainbow is a roomy 2-person 1.17 kilogram sil nylon tent that packs down to just 18X4 inches.

But we haven’t quite dialed in the “comfort” part of the sleep equation.  We both used just the Thermarest Z-lite sleep pad – i.e. the non-inflatable ultra-light type, which in my opinion is more or less the same thing as sleeping directly on the ground without cushioning.  I’m a side sleeper, and my hips hurt like hell on this thing, which meant that I probably only “slept” about 2 hours all told.  No big deal, unless you plan to get up and run for 12 hours the next day.  And again, the day after that.  How do people do this?  In all seriousness, I’m investigating hammocks.

Finally, after poking fun at the clown shoes for the past few years, we both finally caved and got the Hoka Challenger ATR trail shoes.  We’ll probably never wear anything else for long distance running again – ever.  Andy compares them to “fat skis.”  Fo me, it’s like running on pillows.  We’re still stunned by how well these shoes absorb the shock and cumulative pounding of 25 miles on trail.

By the time we made it back to our campsite at Lewis Meadows, the sun was almost gone and we were gassed.  All I could think about was getting my grubby little hands on my dinner & passing out.  So when a woman from a group campsite came over to chat while we were getting our food bags down from the hanging bear wires, I was short & unfriendly.  I felt like a bit of a jerk about this later, and there really was no excuse for it, but I was focused on getting food at that point, and to my lizard brain, she was in the way, pure and simple.  Lord knows what ugliness will bubble up as a result of 3 long days and nights like this.  But there will also, I’m sure, be a great deal of beauty, and many unexpected gifts.

One of the best surprises on this particular trip was the fire pit and dry wood at our campsite by the river.  We didn’t have any paper, or really anything flammable with us, as part of the whole point was to go light, so we tried, without success, to light moss, dry leaves and little sticks with Andy’s lighter, until the lighter finally died.  Then I had an idea.  Two matches and one unravelled tampon later, and voila – a roaring fire.  I know this kind of luxury won’t be possible on the Wonderland Trail, if only due to the enormous forest fire risk.  So we soaked it up for as long as we could, drinking whisky from Andy’s single ounce container & rehashing the highs and lows of the day.  image1 (1)

Building up to Wonderland

Long distance running is dumb.  Marathons are a pain in the ass.  Ultras are even worse. You have to plan your training, suffer through all kinds of tortuous workouts, and then limp around like a gimp trying to accomplish all of the normal everyday tasks that other people were doing while you were out running.  Forget about relaxing on your weekends. Instead, you’re going to squeeze into some retarded compression outfit & prance around city parks wearing a kindergarten-sized hydration backpack.

We’re planning to fastpack the 100 mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier over three days in late July. It’s about the dumbest thing I can think of doing and I’m pretty sure I’ve completely lost my mind. The furthest I’ve ever run is 50 kilometers and the last time I did that was more than a year and a half ago.  We have 2 months to ramp up from 60-90 minute maintenance runs to running and hiking pretty much all day for three straight days.  Fortunately I’m not the twee queen of skyrunning Emilie Forsberg, so I’m in no way obliged to pretend that any of this is going to be fun.

That said, Week 1 was better than I expected.  On Saturday, we ran a 26 kilometer loop with 1200 meters of elevation gain in the Snoqualmie Pass area up to Melakwa and Pratt Lakes and around Granite Peak. Melakwa means mosquito in Chinook, but thankfully it’s still too cold for bugs to be an issue.  It was foggy, so we missed all of the subalpine scenery, put our heads down, and ground out the distance.  We were both surprised by how easy this felt despite our lack of training, but it probably helped that about a third of the trail was unrunnable.

Then, after much grumbling from me about the early wake-up time and not enough sleep to recover properly from Saturday, we drove out to the Teanaway area near Cle Elum for what Andy will probably insist was a “ski”.  It’s true that we brought skis, and it’s even true that we put them on at one point.  But this was mostly just a long hike.  Like Saturday, it was too foggy to see much of anything, so frankly I was relieved when the snow turned out to be too sticky and mushy to make skiing even halfway reasonable.   Andy and Brandon went all the way to the top of Fortune Peak, but I bailed in Headlight Basin.  Lack of sleep and Saturday’s run had wiped me out, plus I couldn’t really see how going all the way up would be worth it, considering how awful the ski down was going to be.  Zero visibility on the mountain freaks me out; you can’t see what’s coming.  So we skinned partway out, then put our skis back on our packs & hiked downhill for a couple of miles.  We even got a few meters of running with packs in when an aggressive grouse chased us down the trail.  In the end, hiking all day with 40 pounds of skis and gear on your back is great strength training, so I guess it’s safe to say that training for Wonderland is off to a pretty good start.

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Larch in Headlight Basin.

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Red Mountain (Snoqualmie) Scramble

After crawling up the heap of loose scree called Red Mountain yesterday, I’m either totally utterly done with alpine scrambling or about to throw myself whole hog into it.  At the summit, I swore to myself that I’d never set foot on such crappy rock again.  Period.  But after a surprisingly easy descent, I was ready to reconsider.

Located near Snoqualmie Pass, the trek to the summit of Red Mountain is about 4-6 kilometers long, depending whether you follow the PCT or the “old trail”, and it climbs about 800 meters to reach 1795 meters or 5890 feet at the summit.  It’s a fun if muddy hike through the forest to the base of Red, with a couple of creek crossings, and plenty of snow still covering the trail in places.

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As for Red itself, I’d read the summitpost description beforehand, and because it warned of loose, tumbling rock, I brought my helmet.  This was the right choice.  I’d also seen some snow at higher elevations and was ready to bring my ice axe.  Andy laughed at this and guffawed that there was no way I’d need it.  “We’ll just go around that snow,” he said. So I left it behind.  This was not the right choice.

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Andy on the “nice” part of the scree trail.  There was still a sort of “trail” at this point.  After that, the route turned into a class 3 scramble.1425218_10152799972221674_2625023576022345945_o

About 300 feet below the summit, we hit a large patch of snow.  This is the part where I kicked myself (again) for not bringing my ice axe.  The slope was quite steep, and the snow was 1-3 feet deep.  I was nervous about both postholing and having absolutely nothing with which to self arrest.  But we used our hands to dig into the snow and made it to the top with no real issues beyond frozen fingers.

Andy and I on the summit.  11202581_10152798789375872_1233151843659521761_n

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View of Kaleetan Peak and the Cascades around it.11170300_10152799972181674_1846086165270707750_o

As for the descent, I was ready for an utter shit show.  Climbing up had freaked me out pretty seriously, as the rock was so loose and at least half of the time, whatever I tried to grab hold of broke off in my hand.  Plus we both kicked a fair bit of rock loose, and that’s the last thing you want flying at your head.  But, oddly enough, I found it 1000 percent easier to clamber down than I had to scramble up, and apart from a tense moment above the snow field where I snarled at Andy about how this wasn’t going to go well, the descent was no big deal at all.

The whole thing took us, um, almost 6 hours – so, more than a bit longer than I had anticipated.  I’d only brought a liter of water, and with temperatures up in the high 70’s, by the time we got back to the car, I had one thing on my mind: Gatorade.  So of course we checked out DruBru, the new brewery at Snoqualmie Pass.  It’s pretty swell.

North Cascades National Park: Birthday Tour

With bluebird skies & warm temps on the forecast, I had ambitious aspirations for getting up into the alpine last weekend. The plan was to spend Saturday skiing the Washington Pass area of N. Cascades National Park, sleep in a bit on Sunday, and then head out to the Snoqualmie Pass area for a trail run up to Melakwa Lake, one of the alpine lakes accessible from the I-90 corridor just east of where we live.  Andy and some friends skied a route known as the “birthday tour” near Washington Pass about a month ago.  I haven’t quite put my finger on what it is, exactly, that makes the N. Cascades so enchanting, but looking at the photos from their trip, I was immediately smitten. It’s the Cascades, but as if through a filter with the contrast turned up.

The route known as the “birthday tour” is an approximately 12 kilometer (8’ish mile) loop that begins northwest of Liberty Bell Peak and the much climbed Early Winters Spires.  We found a dark & quiet rest area off Highway 20 to camp at on Friday night, and I had what I think may have been one of my best nights of sleep ever, under an almost full moon, layered up in a down sleeping bag with an extra quilt as a buffer against the frigid air.

We rose to bluebird skies and a bit of a chilly breeze on Sat. morning.  One of the nice things about Andy’s truck-top tent is that you can roll back the canvas window covers on all sides, and gaze out at the early morning sky without leaving the warmth of your blankets. Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.25.19 PM

According to my Garmin, we were finally en-route & moving on skins by the crack of 10:06 – a bit later than our original, if informal plan to get going by 8:30.  Truth told, this sort of lollygagging is pretty normal for us, and the consequences aren’t typically too serious, especially with later daylight hours now that spring is in full swing.  Today, however, we definitely ended up wishing we’d gotten a bit of an earlier start.

The snow was hard and icy as we skinned up slowly through the forest and then out into the open.  The narrow skin track felt more like an icy single-track bike trail to me, and it wasn’t all that long before we both had ski crampons on.  Unfortunately, most of the time, I’m convinced my skipons aren’t actually doing anything at all.  Here’s the problem: you have to use your ski boot to exert downward pressure to force the prongs down into the snow or ice below your ski.  But once you raise your binding heels, it’s impossible to produce this necessary downward pressure.  And, most likely, the places where you’re going to want to use ski crampons (skinning uphill), are also precisely the places where you’re going to want to use heel lifts.  What’s more, Andy recently added shims under my bindings.  I actually really like the shims; they’ve reduced some of the pressure on my quads, especially on flatter traverses.  But because shims raise the front of the binding, and by extension, also the ski crampons, they seem to aggravate the problem of lacking traction on the uphill.  In short, I’ve used my skipons twice, and although I like the concept, and especially the fact that they’re much lighter and more compact than boot crampons, they’ve turned out to be pretty useless.  I think I may need to look for some with significantly longer prongs.

The Early Winter Spires were in full view just east (ahead) of us.  Squinting, we could spot tiny climbers making their way up the rock.IMG_1143 IMG_1148 IMG_1151 IMG_1159 IMG_1160

At the bottom of a rather intimidating looking boot pack to Blue Lake Col, we stopped for a few minutes to eat and put skis on packs.  We could see Kangaroo Ridge from this point, and, Andy pointed out the various couloirs (basically just avalanche chutes) along the ridge that he wants to ski.  I just shook my head and swallowed back my nausea.IMG_1161

At this point, I realized that I should have brought my ice axe, and that the boot pack was going to be a bit much for me without something stable to hold onto.  Andy lent me his whippet and we headed up, just left of an enormous cornice that I prayed wouldn’t decide to break off on this particular morning.

In photos, slopes never look as steep as they really are or seem when you’re up on them, looking back down.  The photo below really illustrates this; the bootpack looks like a walk in the park with barely any elevation gain at all.  This is not the case.  I would not have made it up the final 5-10 meters, nor over that cornice, without Andy’s whippet. Thank you whippet!IMG_1162

Andy at the top of Blue Lake Col.IMG_1167 View from Blue Lake Col. IMG_1173 At the top of Blue Lake Col, we transitioned, and skied down a long, fun run called Madison Avenue.

Andy in the valley at the bottom of Madison Avenue.IMG_1177 IMG_1178 Looking back at Madison Avenue IMG_1182

From the bottom of Madison Avenue, we put our skins back on and traversed through a long beautiful valley.IMG_1184

At the end of the second long climb of the day, we came to the top of the final col on the route.  Apart from a brief mention that I might find it a little bit spicy, Andy hadn’t said much to me about this feature.  Basically, you have to drop into a steep, rock-lined chute that’s about 20 feet wide for about 5 meters before it opens up into an wide slope.  The snow in the chute was shaded, hard, and icy, and I decided that the combination of these challenges, each of which I could handle in isolation, would be too much for me to bite off together.  Basically, I was terrified of losing control and slamming into the rocks that lined the chute.  Andy took this totally in stride.  He took my skis, strapped his poles to his pack, and sort of jump turned down the slope.  Then he waited – for more than an hour – while I booted down the slope, backward, kicking one step after another into the hard-packed snow. This was exhausting.  By the time I’d descended far enough to put skis on, I’d started getting charlie horses in both of my feet, probably from dehydration. We’d been out under the full force of the sun, radiating from all directions all day, and I hadn’t brought or drunk enough water to keep up with the warmer conditions.  I desperately wanted nothing more than to drink three liters of Gatorade, and to lie down in the snow for a nap.  IMG_1185 IMG_1187 IMG_1188 IMG_1189 IMG_1190

Ski conditions from this point on were pretty rough.  It was probably close to 5 p.m. by this time, and anything that had softened up under the midday sun had refrozen, hard.  Plus an avalanche had run down the center of the last wide slope, rendering it essentially unskiable.  We decided to try to go around it by veering off to one side into the trees, but to do this, had to actually cross it.  Andy deftly found a narrow ski track through the large ice boulders, but my skiing abilities were almost nil by this time, and I missed it, which meant trying to boot across the slide.  That’s as close as I’ve ever been to an actual slide, and I found it pretty intimidating.  Moreover, in practical terms, it was tough to hike through, being both hard packed and very icy.  Halfway across I lost my balance and dropped my skis, almost losing one down the slope.  Nothing about this was anything I wouldn’t be able to handle under normal circumstances, but I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, and probably couldn’t even have skied down a groomed green run without falling.

When I caught up to Andy, he reminded me that the Birthday Tour isn’t a complete loop, and that you have to hitch a ride on Highway 20 to get from the exit point back to the trailhead, about 2 miles down the road.  So, even though we could see the road, being the last ones off the mountain meant we were probably nowhere near done.  Luckily we happened across a couple of climbers who’d just gotten back to their car as we reached the road, and they were more than happy to shuttle us back to ours.

Never has beer tasted so good.IMG_1192

I loved 75% of the “birthday tour”  and overall it was a really fun day.  But I need to get some more experience on steep, narrow slopes if I’m going to be comfortable dropping into chutes like the one on this tour.  I’ve also become a bit too reliant on Andy to always tell me about the terrain we’ll be on, whether or not I’ll need an ice axe, what level of technical difficulty there’ll be, and so on.  I need to start collecting more beta independently, and making my own judgment calls about what’s going to be appropriate for my abilities.  This should be obvious, but the dynamic between us as ski partners is contextualized by the fact that Andy basically taught me to ski, and that most of what I know about backcountry skiing I’ve learned from him.  So apart being romantic and activity partners, there’s a definite “student-mentor” relationship that comes into play when we ski.  Combined, these factors have led me to lean on him when it comes to making judgments about the difficulty-level of terrain.  And this has mostly worked out in my favor, as Andy tends to over-estimate my abilities, is very encouraging, and talks me through situations that I would definitely have turned away from if left to my own devices.  So I’ve learned more, and much faster, with him, than I would have otherwise.  But it’s never wise to rely too much on someone else’s judgment, and this is especially true in the backcountry.  So I need to start paying a bit more attention to the plan, in advance.

Review of Lizzy Hawker’s new book, Runner

Among women in the world of ultra-endurance running, Britain’s Elizabeth or “Lizzy” Hawker’s accomplishments dazzle.  Named National Geographic’s 2013 Adventurer of the Year, her victories includes five wins at the UTMB, the 246 km Spartathon, Comrades, Run Rabbit Run, Transgrancanaria, Zermatt, the San Francisco North Face Endurance Challenge, Manaslu, the Everest Sky Race, and countless others.  She was also the 2006 100km world champion and held the world record for 24 hours of road racing until May 2013.

In her first and newly published book Runner, Hawker tells the story of how she stumbled into and then came to dominate the world of ultrarunning.  Readers not already familiar with Hawker’s bio might be surprised to learn that the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was her first ultra-distance mountain race, and that she won it with what seems to have been almost no intentional training, strategy, or understanding of what she was biting off in setting out to race 100 miles through the Alps.

Runner is organized into three main sections.  In Part I: A Journey of Discovery, Hawker recounts her ultrarunning beginnings and her first UTMB win in 2005.  In Part II: A Journey of Exploration, she tells of her time in Nepal including her run from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu.  Part III: A Journey of Realization turns to her attempts to recover from several serious running injuries.

Readers looking for details about Lizzy’s training regime, racing strategies, or dietary secrets will find few specifics in Runner.  Understated and deeply introspective throughout, the book positions Hawker as a beginner in the spirit of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  Heavily influenced by a broad swath of Eastern religion and philosophy including Tibetan Buddhism, Hawker’s book is really a meditation on how endurance running became, for her, a vehicle for self discovery and self actualization.  And if Runner relies a bit heavily on quotations by Lao Tzu, Carl Jung, Douglas Adams, Robert Pirsig, the Buddha, Carl Sagan etc. – it is nevertheless a very personal and at times, emotional story.  For readers with a philosophical orientation and an interest in running as vehicle for self actualization, Runner is a recommended read.