Last week I headed to the Methow Valley to get in my last couple big training days with the sled. It was bitter cold over there, which is exactly what I was looking for… although at -10F in the Methow, it was still 20 degrees warmer than temps reported in Alaska last week. Brrr.
I had two loops planned out: Day 1 was a Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek loop, as suggested by friend and fellow coach Alison, who not only sent me on a great route, but also met me at 930 pm with a delicious cupcake AND let me crash in her guest room. Thanks Alison! Day 2 was the Chewuch River Loop, which was less scenic than Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek but still lovely.
Day 1 – Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek Loop
The first route was from Yellowjacket sno-park to Goat Creek sno-park, and then run (walk) the road in between. Caltopo mapped it at 24 miles, but by the time I completed the loop my Suunto was calling it 29 miles. Regardless, it was a long cold afternoon/evening in the snow and a very valuable training day.
I left my house in Seattle at around 5 am, and after stopping at the Rocking Horse Bakery for second breakfast, I made it to the Yellow Jacket sno-park in the Methow by approx 10:30 am. (If the roads are clear, this is typically a 4.5 – 5 hr trip. I went slower because both Snoqualmie Pass and Blewett Pass were covered in compact snow and ice.) I got all my gear situated in my sled and then took off up the trail towards Yellow Jacket Pass. I was getting a much later start than usual, but I wanted to experience some really cold temps and I knew my best bet for that was to be out after sunset.
For most of the way up to Yellow Jacket Pass I was walking in approx 4-5 inches of fresh powder. The snow was light and powdery and it was fairly easy going, except for that damn sled behind me. Just before I reached the pass, two snowmobiles went by. Both guys slowed down and waved as they drove past me. They were the only people I’d see on the trail all day.
Soon enough I was over Yellow Jacket Pass and enjoying the gently rolling terrain of Black Pine Basin. By now it was about 330 pm, and starting to get dark. Up ahead I saw the same two snowmobilers, who were now headed back to the trailhead. They stopped to chat and expressed some concern about my planned route for the evening, especially given the temps (it dropped below zero as we stood there chatting). They told me of a shelter where I could bivy in case of emergency. I thought it was nice of them to stop and check in.
After they drove off it was just me and the snow and the full moon. Wow that moon was amazing! I didn’t even have to turn on my headlamp.
Eventually I started the descent down towards Goat Creek Sno-Park, and while I was grateful not to be hauling a heavy sled uphill anymore, I realized that the good part about going uphill is that it keeps you warm. At this point the sun was down, the temps were -5 to -10F, and I was hardly working at all as I cruised downhill. I put on every layer I had, included a down expedition-weight jacket, and was still a little chilly. Note to self: pack even more layers for AK!
Eventually I reached the Goat Creek Sno-Park, and noticed a big truck slowly driving up the road towards me. It was Alison! She had brought me an amazingly delicious cupcake, and she also had her two adorable girls in the car (one kiddo, one pup). She invited me into the truck cab, and we chatted briefly as I crammed the cupcake in my mouth. After a few minutes, I reluctantly got out of the truck and headed off. All I had left now were 8 miles of road-walking back to my car. (Of course Alison offered me a ride, and of course I couldn’t accept.)
The road walk was pretty uneventful, except for the last few miles, as I trudged along Lost River Rd in the dark. I noticed a car coming my direction, and then right after passing me, it flipped a u-turn, pulled over behind me, and turned off its headlights. This was not Alison’s truck. I stopped to face the car. A tall man got out and started walking towards me.
“You’ve had quite a night!”
I laughed nervously. The road was completely dark and there was absolutely no one else around. “Why do you say that?”
He kept walking towards me. “Well, you’ve just been out here awhile! With the sled!” And then he stopped and said “I’m one of the guys from the snowmobiles!” At this point he was close enough that I could see his face, and he was was indeed one of the snowmobile guys, smiling kindly. He shielded his eyes from my headlamp and said “Well, I’d offer you a ride, but I’m guessing you don’t want one.” I confirmed, and then he got in his car and drove back the way he came. From what I could tell, the only reason he’d been driving down that road was to make sure I’d made it out of the woods OK. There are good people in the world.
Day 2 – Chewuch River Loop
I finished the Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek loop, went back to Alison’s house, inhaled a box of mac n’ cheese, and then slept for a few hours. Before I knew it, my alarm was going off and it was time to get back on the trail. On tap for that day was the Chewuch River Loop. This route is not as scenic as Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek, but I knew that the Chewuch Loop was relatively flat + it had been recently groomed = a great way to knock out some miles with the sled in tow.
I saw zero humans from start to finish, and after the first 1/2 mile, my footprints were the only tracks in the snow, other than a few wild critters. It boggled my mind that an entire 25-mile loop could be groomed on Wednesday, and by Thursday night not a single person (except for me) had yet to set foot/wheel/ski on it. Amazing!
The Chewuch Loop was even less eventful than the Yellow Jacket/Goat Creek loop. It was basically one foot in front of the other, stopping occasionally to eat, drink, and add or subtract a layer. After the previous day, I knew how much colder it would get after sunset, so I pre-emptively layered up as dusk approached. Staying ahead of the chill definitely helped, although I was still shivering by the time I reached my vehicle.
These training days in the Methow gave me a new appreciation for the cold. Even at a relatively balmy -10F, I felt like the margin of error was small. You can’t stop moving for long, because you start losing heat immediately. So I made a plan for every stop, thinking about the order in which I would do things to maximize warmth and minimize time stopped (hint: putting on the big down jacket always comes first, no matter how badly you have to pee.)
There’s no doubt that traveling through snow on foot, with a sled attached to your waist, is clunky and inefficient. Even so, I’m really enjoying the process: dialing in the gear, determining which bars are best when frozen (Lara bars are good, Clif bars are not), and generally figuring out how to stay comfortable in a harsh environment. It’s a skill that I’m far from mastering, but I’m having fun learning!