2015: looking back

“Best-of” lists and New Years resolutions tend feel a bit boilerplate to me, but I’m a reflective sort of person and one of my hopes for 2016 is to make more time for writing.  So here goes.  2015 was a monumental year for a whole bunch of reasons going well beyond outdoor adventure.

Lake O’Hara Wedding


On August 31, Andy and I tied the knot on the shores of the remote and absurdly beautiful Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park.  It’s a very sentimental place for us, having run the Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit together there a few summers ago.  Returning to the spot where we shared one of our first mountain excursions – to get married – was magical.  It was considerably chillier than the last time we were there – two years prior to the day, and we wound up canceling plans to hike up to the Abbott Hut as temperatures plummeted well below freezing.  We said our vows under an enormous black umbrella, shivering, and spent most of the rest of the time in our sleeping bags as sleet, snow, hail, and chilly rain took turns pounding our tent.  Cold hands, warm heart.  I couldn’t possibly have been happier.  What can I say?  I love the guy.

Going long: White River & the Fat Dog


Ran my first 50 miler at White River in July followed by an attempt at the Fat Dog 120 two weeks later.  Having run a handful of 50k’s, I wanted to test and push my endurance.  White River went well and I finished in a respectable 10:30 without tapering or trying to “race”.  The Fat Dog was another thing altogether.  I DNF’d at mile 70 after hobbling through the night with severe ITB pain, then spent the following three days with what felt like flue symptoms.  Will I give it another shot?  I have some serious questions about the longterm physiological damage that races this long may cause, but the answer is still: most likely.



Running the Ho River Trail in Olympic National Park with Andy was definitely one of the highlights of 2015.  We tried out some new ultra-light gear and combined trail running with camping for the first time.  After out-and-backing up to Glacier Meadows, we camped in a bone dry spit on the banks of the Ho.  Unseasonably warm and dry weather worked in our favor, cushioning this typically wet-as-all-hell route for us, and we went home with grins on our faces and optimism about plans to fast-pack the Wonderland trail around Mt. Rainier later that summer.  But the following night, I landed in the emergency room with breathing trouble and severe chest pain.  An ill-fitting pack and the cumulative effect of of 15 Ibs bashing against my torso for 40 miles had resulted in an inflamed chest wall.  Clearly I have a few gear-related riddles to solve before trying this on a longer and more challenging route like Wonderland.

New backyard: Getting to know the I-90 corridor


I’ve missed running on the sunny, open grassland trails around Kamloops.  To passers-by, the semi-arid landscapes of the Thompson Nicola highlands can seem monotonously yellow and brown.  Certainly, that was my perspective when I first moved to the region.  But my view of the terrain there changed over time – mostly through trail running, and I came to love the endless views of rivers, the dramatic and ever-present skies, and the subtle beauty of the plants that thrived in a climate with much greater extremes than the mild West Coast.

The Cascades are, of course, nothing like the hills around Kamloops.  And while I’d like to be the sort of person that appreciates everything on its own merits and doesn’t compare, for summer mountain running, I have to admit that the I-90 corridor is better.  I was still working part-time last summer, so I had plenty of time to check out the new backyard.  I ran, hiked or scrambled a good chunk of the trails: most everything in the “Issaquah Alps” (Tiger, Squak and Cougar mountains), Granite and Red mountains, trails out to and around Kaleetan, Annette, Melakwa, Pratt, Alaska, Joe, and Snow lakes, Kendall Peak, the Ridge Lakes, Lake Lillian, Teneriff, Si, Rattlesnake Ridge, and a bunch of other routes I’m forgetting.  I feel lucky to have access to the Cascades alpine so close to our home in Issaquah, and this does help to compensate for some of the rubs associated with living in the burbs – long commutes etc.

New Job

This blog is about my outdoor adventures, so I don’t usually get into personal or professional stuff too much.  But a huge highlight of the year was starting a new job as a faculty research services librarian at Seattle University.  I left a job I loved behind when I left Thompson Rivers University to move here with Andy, and finding a solid career-track position at a great institution here was an enormous relief.

Loowit Trail


10 hours around Mount St. Helens in 100 degrees: our experience of the Loowit Trail was certainly one of extremes.  But it was the distinctness of the landscape, with miles of lava boulders, lupine meadows and treacherous sand gullies that lifted this day into my shortlist of 2015 highlights.  The trail around this volcano traverses some otherworldly terrain, and while I have no particular desire to go back there, ever, this was certainly one of the more memorable mountain runs I’ve done.

Revelstoke & Rogers Pass

10270665_10153235221856674_2972828209990006812_nFor the Christmas break, Andy and I spent five ridiculously fun days in Revelstoke, B.C., and the close-by Glacier National Park. The weather gods blessed us with a spate of bluebird days and low avi risks, so we headed up into the alpine.  In addition to skiing out to the Asulkan Hut, we spent one long day touring Video Peak. And while the day turned out to be somewhat more adventurous than I’d anticipated, I skied my first legit mountain peak in the backcountry.  Two years ago I could barely ski at all, so this felt like a real accomplishment.


11722296_10153113883243871_8204016252810885249_o-2(Photo stolen from Facebook, by Lindsey Kunz)

Not far from Leavenworth, the Enchantments are one of the more beautiful alpine environments in the state.  We backpacked in for the July 4th long weekend and spent four days slapping mosquitos while gaping at the smooth granite, larches, and clear, chilly glacier lakes.  The trip was far from perfect; we all found ourselves challenged by the bugs and by exposure to so much direct sun, and then Andy rolled his ankle on the way out (never wear Hokas with a heavy pack).  But it was my first time in this very special region and maybe just for that reason, stands out in my mind as one of our more noteworthy trips of the year.

Paradise: Mt. Rainier


We skied the volcano a whole bunch last year, mainly due to the snopocalypse.  None of these trips were particularly epic in terms of big days or challenging terrain, but skiing the Nisqually Chutes was definitely something of a threshold experience for me in terms of steepness.

I tend to chew on the motivations behind outdoor pursuits a fair bit in general.  Why do we choose to run around in the mountains instead of staying home?  My own drivers vary from day to day, but one thing I can say that feels like a common thread for me has to do with newness.  Learning to do something new and putting myself in the position of being  a beginner helps me see the world with fresh eyes, and helps to hold boredom at bay a bit.  It was anything but a boring year.

High Divide Loop (7 Lakes Basin), Olympic National Park

Tapering is for folks who actually train.  That’s what I told myself this July when the opportunity to enjoy a 20 mile mountain run somewhere new presented itself one week before the White River 50 miler.  No matter.  Despite the annoyingly circuitous commute from the Seattle area to Olympic National Park, mostly due to ferry traffic and the Sequim lavender festival, the High Divide Loop was scenic enough to compensate for the travel, if somewhat less spectacular than “mind blowing.”

Starting from the Sol Duc TH, the trail, which follows the Sol Duc River through the lush rainforest at first, is mostly flat for about 6 miles.  After that, you climb steeply to about 1650 meters in the sub-alpine and catch some stellar views of Mt. Olympus from the High Divide Trail, before curling around Bogachiel Peak and descending to Deer Lake and all the way back down to the Sol Duc River.  We took it pretty easy, took lots of photos, and got back to the parking lot in about 5 hours total for the loop.

Andy & Ben


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Backpacking the Enchantments

Back in early July, we joined up with some family and friends for a long weekend backpacking trip to the Enchantments in the Leavenworth/Central Cascades area.  It’s definitely one of the more beautiful alpine environments in Washington State, with its smooth granite, larches, and chilly glacier lakes.  Half of our group climbed Prusik one day, but the rest of us took it very easy, and for once, Andy and I enjoyed a backcountry excursion without any long or challenging mountain running.  The bugs were a bit excessive, and we also found the exposure from so much constant direct sun on what was quite a scorcher of a weekend to be a bit much.  But apart from that, it was a fun and very laid back few days.

Prusik, which Andy’s brother climbed with another couple, while the rest of us hiked up Little Annapurna


Andy and I in front of one of many alpine lakes.  (Photo by Lindsey Kunz, stolen from Facebook)


Andy and I with Prussik peak in the background.  (Photo credit: Lindsey Kunz.  Photo stolen from Facebook)11728747_10153113883093871_43910451531793808_o10981611_10152925575041674_2358557656738388257_n11221825_10152925575091674_9084726176536861202_n11168145_10152925575111674_6714051789686496910_n11707541_10152925575151674_5433354933407751825_n

Goats: they’re everywhere here.  They like the salt in urine, so they hang around & wait for it … 11056887_10152925592376674_6143641399050119691_o

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Andy giving some love to a grand old Larch11698895_10152925598861674_1791105394934531388_n

Fat Dog 120 Race Report

Starting near Keremeos, BC, the Fat Dog course travels west through 120 miles of remote and stunningly beautiful alpine terrain from Cathedral Provincial Park and Protected Area to Manning Park.  It’s increasingly being referred to as Canada’s Hardrock, for which it’s now a qualifier, and with around 28,000 feet of elevation gain over rugged, mostly single-track trails, it’s certainly one of the toughest 100 (plus) mile races around.

Last year, I crewed my friend Neil.  In exchange, he offered to crew/pace me this year.  That’s really the main reason I signed up.  I also had this inkling that it wouldn’t really be that hard.  I was wrong about that, of course, but the point is that I didn’t really have any deep, burning motivation to run a “hundo”.  I just happen to love being out on those trails, and was curious about what it might be like to go such a long way on foot.

Things started out great, as I imagine they usually do.  The first 20 miles of the course climbs around 6,000 feet up into the Canadian side of the Pasayton Wilderness in the Cathedral Protected area, which is really beautiful alpine geography with vast larch forests until you get above treeline.  Then you drop back down almost as far as you’d climbed, to the first crew station.  I took it really easy and arrived there in 5 hours.  Andy and Neil were there to meet me, and they did stuff like fill up my hydration bladder while I ate a piece of pizza, cleaned up and re-lubed my feet.  It was sunny and felt like 90 degrees out, so I wasn’t too worried about the fact that there was rain on the forecast.  Andy asked me if I wanted to bring a long sleeved shirt with me for the next leg.  Nah, I said.  It’s too warm out for that.


(Single-track through the Cathedral Park alpine.  Photo credit: me.)


(Took this photo of the Cathedral Lakes Protected Area last summer.  The race doesn’t get you to this precise view, but it does give you a good idea of what the geography looks like.  Photo credit: me.)

An epic electrical storm, pounding rain and hail, and hypothermia defined the next 20 miles.  I’d barely left the Ashnola aid station and was hiking up the second big climb of the race toward Trapper Lake when the sky turned dark – really dark – like, 8 p.m. get-your-headlamp-out dark.  Then it started raining.  Thunder rumbled.  Rain showers evolved into a heavy downpour and the temperature plummeted.  By the time I got to the Trapper aid station, I was soaked to the bone, my teeth were chattering, and I couldn’t feel my hands.  All of my really serious rain and cold weather clothes were waiting miles ahead down the trail at Bonnevier, the last real aid station before you head into the night, and my Patagonia Houdini just wasn’t cutting it.  I was cold and worried, and even considered going back to Ashnola; but I knew Andy and Neil would be long gone, and with no cell service, there’d be no way to reach them.  Dropping at Trapper wasn’t an option either.  It’s a remote aid station with no vehicle access and, of course, no cell service.  Plus I’d barely started the race.  No way was I going to bail this soon.  So I asked how far to the next aid station – Calcite.  13 miles and at least 3,000 feet of climb.

As I ran away from Trapper, I noticed coin-sized chunks of ice on my gloves.  Hail.  Every couple of minutes, lightning forked into the stumpy burned-out Lord-of-the-Rings forest.  Everyone, it seemed, had given up on running, but I couldn’t think of any other way to at least try to stay warm, so I hammered.  Well … let’s say … “hammered”.  I did pass a lot of people though, including a couple of Mexicans who looked like superheros with their silver and gold colored emergency blankets tied around their necks, flapping behind them in the wind.  “This is what we expect from Canadian weather,” they shouted.  They seemed oddly gleeful.  I dug my emergency blanket out of my pack and tied it around my head.

As I approached the treeline near Flattop Mountain, and then a long, exposed plateau, I weighed the pros and cons of finding somewhere to hide from the lightning.  But every time I stopped running, my core temperature would plummet.  And so, out I ran, into the open, praying I wasn’t about to become a statistic.  My body shook and my teeth chattered even though I was running as fast as I could.  And then, as if I wasn’t already sufficiently hypothermic, side winds started ripping across the plateau.  I thought about the “wisdom” of running through a lightning storm with a metallic emergency blanket tied around my head, but I couldn’t bring myself to take it off.  I needed to preserve whatever heat I could.  Oddly enough, it didn’t even occur to me to toss my metal poles.

After 13 miles of hypothermic hell, I finally got to the Calcite aid station.  They had a fire going.  A fucking fire.  I was so happy I thought I might cry.  I changed into the dry, long-sleeved shirt I’d put in my Calcite drop bag, held my Houdini over the fire to dry, and slurped cups of hot chicken broth.  Calcite had backroad access and folks were dropping like flies at that point.  Looking back, it’s hard not to shake my head at the amount of kevetching that went on at the pre-race briefing about the mandatory gear.  As if it were somehow unreasonable to expect runners wearing singlets and shorts into rugged alpine terrain and mountain weather, miles from vehicle access or cell service, to carry a waterproof jacket, a long sleeved shirt, and a headlamp.  In the end, the gear requirements may have actually been too light …

As for me, once I’d warmed up and dried off, everything seemed alright again, so I put on my headlamp and cruised the remaining 7 kilometers or so down to the Ashnola river crossing.  Three miles along the shoulder of the highway from there, and I’d made it 66 kilometers to Bonnevier.


Having pacers and crew for this race really contributed to the overall experience.  Seeing Andy at key junctions was such a mental lift, plus he saved me piles of time by helping switch out gear, refill water etc.  Having Neil run through the night from Bonnevier with me was an incredible advantage as well.  The fact that he knew the course meant not really having to worry about wandering off a cliff in the fog or getting lost.  Plus he talked almost non-stop for the entire night – something I might not appreciate 100% on your average day, but which made it totally impossible for me to get lost in any dark or grumpy thoughts (well, any thoughts, really) for even a minute.  I loved being out on the trail in the darkness; you can’t see much of anything, obviously, and I find the reduced stimuli to be quite relaxing.  I did feel very sleepy for the first few hours of the climb from Bonnevier up to Heather, but that’s hardly surprising considering that it was around 11 p.m. when Neil and I left Bonnevier together – right around my normal bedtime.


(Getting geared up for the night.  Photo credit: Andy)

Storm #2 hit as we trudged up and up the next 19 kilometers, and I later heard that the race organizers had almost shut down the race due to the severity of rain and wind up on that ridge between Heather and Nicomen Lake.  I didn’t really mind it this time, as I was prepared with multiple warm shirts, running tights, a toque, hard-shell jacket, handwarmers – you get the idea.  They’d actually checked both Neil and I (and everyone else) leaving Bonnevier to make sure we had all of the mandatory gear for the night, but even that wasn’t enough to prevent some runners from dropping out due to the stormy weather.  “Welcome to hypothermia hotel,” someone said when we finally arrived at the aid station.  I was shocked to learn it was 3:30 a.m.  Time flies when you’re having fun?  Anyway, that aid station had been set up on a ridge near the treeline, and it consisted, basically, of a large tarp held in place by a few poles and some rope, all of which flapped violently in the wind.  Inside, around 15 people were huddled shoulder to shoulder, drinking the hot broth that the extremely nice and helpful volunteers offered to everyone the minute they arrived, & eating the quesadillas that some guy in ski gear sitting on the ground with a little MSR stove kept cranking out.  The quesadillas, complete with fresh avocados and salsa, tasted amazing, and I would have loved to pour a little whisky, bundle up in a sleeping bag next to the three guys who’d zipped themselves into emergency bivvies & chat with the other runners as they trickled in one by one.   But we had to keep on going.  Neil, who had been focused on doing things I’m used to doing for myself, like refilling my water and Tailwind & making sure I ate, was still wearing just shorts and was visibly shaking with cold.  I made him put some pants on & we hit the trail.

My right IT band was in pretty bad shape by now, such that every time the sometimes rocky and rooty trail stepped downhill, I had to stop and try to use my poles like crutches to support my right leg.  I could hike uphill just fine, but anything downhill equaled excruciating knee pain.  We had 20 miles and 7,000 feet to descend before we’d get to an aid station with vehicle access.  It took 8 hours.  Sorry, Neil.

Neil, who I’m sure thought I was just being a wuss, tried everything he could think of to persuade me to stay in the race.  If I just kept on going, he said, my knee might right itself. I was well ahead of the cut-offs … None of this made an ounce of difference; I’d decided to drop and felt 100% fine with my decision.  My kneecap felt like it had been shot off and I knew from experience that IT band inflammation doesn’t improve unless you stop and give it time to heal.   If the rest of the course had been uphill, flat or even rolling, I might have pushed on, but the final 20 miles involved climbing and descending another 7,000 feet. No way was I going to risk getting stuck on a remote mountain I might not be able to get myself down from.   Plus, it was still raining.  Hard.  It would be bad enough to be stranded in good conditions, but soaking wet & freezing cold?  No thank you.  I do these for the fun of it, and finishing just wasn’t important enough to me to risk a disaster.

I got to mile 73.  I had an amazing time.  Oddly enough, I have no regrets about DNFing. But I will be back next year, hopefully in better (stronger) condition to handle both the distance and the climb.  A big thanks to both Andy and Neil for crewing and pacing, and to Andy for helping me get through the next few days of post-race DOMs, night sweats, hobbling around, and other recovery woes.


(Andy & Neil: crew & pacing team extraordinaire!  Photo credit: me)

Loowit Trail, Mt. St. Helens


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)